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A Fixed Point

Authored By: 
Charlie Sitler, Math Teacher

Science is elegant.  Mathematics is beautiful.

That was the insight that came to me as I unexpectedly found myself leafing through a whole slew of Scientific American magazines from years gone by.  And with that insight came a whole new appreciation of the subject of mathematics that I had devoted my life to teaching. I was struck by how quickly some of the science articles had become outdated, while the math articles retained a timelessness that reflected the one-pointedness of mathematics itself--the fact that the truths of mathematics belong to eternity.

The magazines had been offered to my friend Richard, who was the science chair at the school where I previously taught.  We were good friends, and I was sitting in his office one day shooting the breeze when the school librarian came in bearing a carton full of really old Scientific Americans. The offer of the magazines went to Richard (in the name of science), but he declined, which I initially found surprising, especially given his usual excitement over new issues of the magazine.   But Richard went on to explain that since the magazines were so old, any scientific ideas of any import covered in them would have continued to evolve, and the information contained in those articles would be as yellow as the pages that now contained them.  "These magazines have at least occasional pieces on mathematics, don't they?" I asked the librarian, who nodded that they did.  "I'll take them!"

My hunch about the math articles was right--every piece on mathematics was as fresh and true as the day it was written.  Unlike science, which keeps evolving as new theories are entertained, mathematics traffics in the eternal.  The evolution of science at its best reflects the wonder of the human mind processing new information and revamping old theories in an elegant way to accommodate the shock of the new.  But the concepts and truths of mathematics as discussed in those decades-old issues remained bright and clean, new and beautiful, with every aspect sparkling under the open sun.  Pythagoras and I were contemporaries!!!  Euclid's theorems were front-page news--still!  And in explaining aspects of mathematics in the classroom, I was participating in a timeless enterprise.

I had developed a new appreciation for my chosen profession.  The ways of the world might change ten times an hour at their most stable.  But the truths of mathematics would be unmoved and unwavering, whatever upsets might take place in the world. Not too shabby.  Not too shabby at all.