Who's Counting: Math in Narratives

Math and Meta4

The symbiotic way in which mathematical metaphors elucidate everyday speech and, conversely, the way in which mathematical notions derive from everyday stories and activities is of interest as well. Notions of probability and statistics, for example, did not suddenly appear in the full dress regalia we encounter in mathematics classes.

There were glimmerings of these concepts in stories dating from antiquity, when bones and rocks were already in use as dice. References to likelihood appear in classical literature, and the importance of chance in everyday life must have been understood by at least a few. It's not hard to imagine thoughts of probability flitting through our ancestors' minds. "If I'm lucky, I'll get back before they finish eating the beast."

Consider too the statistical notions of central tendency -- average, median, mode, etcetera. They most certainly grew out of workaday words like "usual," "customary," "typical," "same," "middling," "most," "standard," "expected," "normal," "ordinary," "medium," "conventional," "commonplace," "so-so," and so on.

It is hard to imagine prehistoric humans, even those lacking the vocabulary above, not possessing some sort of rudimentary idea of the typical. Any situations or entities -- storms, animals, rocks -- that recurred again and again would lead naturally to the notion of a typical or average recurrence. Similar derivations for statistical variation, probability itself, correlation, and other notions also grew naturally out of the everyday stories in which they were imbedded, and the process continues with newer terms and ideas.

Many other topics might be mentioned (and will be at the conference), but suffice it to say that an increasing appetite for abstraction as well as other aspects of contemporary culture will insure that the confluence of mathematics and narrative will intensify.

I'll end with this plaint from Lewis Carroll, who unfortunately will not be in attendance:

Yet what mean all such gaieties to me

Whose life is full of indices and surds

X^2 + 7X +53 = 11/3

-- Professor of mathematics at Temple University, John Allen Paulos is the author of best-selling books, including "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market." His "Who's Counting?" column on ABCNEWS.com appears the first weekend of every month.

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