Politics aside, professors debate future of math in mock presidential debate

There are some things that just make sense here, things that just really fit into what our school is all about. Consider, for instance, our mascot – a shining synthesis of competitive pride, collegiate self-parody, bovine psychedelia and flat-out silliness. Another fine example of an almost hyperbolically Williams-esque self-affirmation is a recent event whose recipe called for ingredients that the College has in abundance: take one part geekdom, one part adoring parents and two parts elitist trivialization of both politics and scholarship, and what you get is the Mathematical Presidential Debate.

This past Saturday, math professors Colin Adams and Tom Garrity took to the stage of the Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall in a battle to the finish between the far-out math of the future and the steadfast stability of mathematical tradition. It was one of many events organized as part of the reunion of generations we call Family Days, and the familial harmony I perceived from all sides provided a wonderful contrast to my own hopeless solitude. Disguised as the figure-eight knot of modern topology (whatever that means), Adams represented the beacon of geometrical progress, while the opposing Garrity assumed the identity of the Euclidean algorithm (see Wikipedia) in defense of old school mathematics. Ed Burger, professor of mathamatics, mediated the debate and then briefly introduced its nature, giving a little background information on the candidates while making a few jokes about sandwiches. I laughed not at their intrinsic comedic value, but rather at the brilliant irony of sandwich jokes being made by a man whose very name is a sandwich joke.

The format of the debate was simple: each candidate was allowed a 12-minute opening statement and a five-minute rebuttal, to be followed of course by a vote of all those in attendance. Progressive mathematics took an early lead as the outdated Newtonian mechanics of a falling coin gave Adams the first turn at the podium, but his heartfelt, convincing plea on behalf of topological progress immediately put my soul at ease. Apparently, topology has something to do with a man named Euler who crossed some bridges once and, as a result, lost the ability to distinguish between a coffee mug and a doughnut.

But such mathematic technicalities, which I’m sure are beyond the comprehension of my readers anyway, were not at the crux of Adams’ admonition to his audience. The essence of his appeal was instead the emotional charge of his calm yet passionate devotion to moving forward. “We need forward thinkers,” he explained while continually pointing out that the Euclidean algorithm represents a kind of math whose antiquity prevents any real relevance to our modern and ever-changing world. While his opponent is stubbornly rooted in the past, “mired in the mathematics of the Middle Ages,” as Adams put it, the figure-eight knot, which as he reminds us “was not there for the invention of the wheelbarrow,” has the youthful vigor and fervent dedication it takes to run the math world.

Any sense of comfort or confidence that Adams’ opening had created was immediately dismantled as Garrity took to the podium and opened his mouth. His neurotic gestures and jarring screams were a complete inverse of his precursor’s reserve and self-control (this was later confirmed by several math undergrads using their trusty identity matrix-QED). Garrity’s basic argument was simple: if we want to use math in a way that is meaningful in the real world, we’ve got to, “start with the basics, with the foundations.” With an inescapably confrontational charisma that bordered dangerously on psychotic, he demanded that his audience recognize that “there is a Euclidean geometry everywhere,” but that it is not the “same kind of floppy rubber geometry” which his suspicious opponent uses to swindle his followers into what ultimately becomes moral relativism. If, as Adams and other topologists claim, there is no difference between a sphere and a cube, or the numbers six and seven, what kind of basis can we possibly establish to determine what is considered right or just, and what is the stuff of violent anarchy? The coup de grace of Garrity’s presentation, and arguably the emotional climax of the entire debate, was an impromptu rendition of the old gospel standard, “Gimme that Ol’ Time Mathematics.” Although audience response was moderate and the singing shoddy, I’m sure he’ll be more successful with it in Alabama.

Due to time constraints, the question and answer period was brief, but included at least two memorable crowd-pleasers: Garrity’s claim that two is his favorite number, and Adams’ explanation that the “sine + 1” function is always positive because it is on prescription drugs. I didn’t get the joke. Voting was done vocally, and the guesstimated abundance of “ayes” for Adams (numerical exactitude was not given due respect here) suggested victory for the topologists. Flags unfurled and cheers abound – a new frontier, a brighter future. Progress had prevailed, and all was well in the world of math and magic. With my eyes on the floor, I pushed through smiling grandmothers and bored little brothers until I reached the door and passed back into the grey morning, into Williams, the real world.