Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Week 26: Why Creationism is Dumb

Why Creationism is Dumb
How multivariable calculus helps us cut through complexity, recognize universal patterns, and thus discover our own truthsand why this scares the Pope.  

I met up with a new client at Cafe Flore today. She's a grad student at Cal taking multivariable calculus (scary!) over the summer.

I warned her that my multivariable calculus was a bit rusty, that I might not always be able to speak from a position of authority, that our relationship might have to assume a more egalitarian formthat we might have to work through this together. 

She seemed okay with it. 

Today's lesson dealt with the concept of basis, which is just a fancy mathematical way of saying coordinate system, or to generalize even furtherframe of reference.

In multivariable calculus, where you begin working in more than just one- or two- or even three dimensions, a basis helps you make sense of a quantitative world that extends beyond the realm of sensory experience. 

I think NYU Professor Morris Kline (1908 - 1992) put it best:
"No one can visualize a four-dimensional, non-Euclidean world, but those who insist on visualizing the concepts with which science and mathematics now deal are still in the dark ages of their intellectual development. Almost since the beginning of work with numbers, mathematicians have carried on algebraic reasoning that is independent of sense experience. Today they consciously construct and apply geometries that exist only in human brains and that were never meant to be visualized."
In one of her problems, my client was given 7 different vectors (think of an arrow), each of varying magnitude and orientation, and then asked to find a basis. 

I explained to my client that the 7 different vectors were like sets of unidentified fingerprints lifted from a crime scene: one from the bedroom doorknob, two from a champagne flute, several taken from a bloody butcher knife...and so on.

To proceed with the investigation, she needed to determine if those 7 sets of fingerprints belonged to 7 different suspects, or if really there were only 1 or 2 or 3 unique suspects.

It was up to my client to eliminate redundant sets of fingerprints (i.e. those belonging to the same person) until only a unique set remained: to find the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The problem reminded me of a Star Trek episode, “The Measure of a Man” (TNG: 2x09). In it, Captain Picard offers this closing argument in the trial over Commander Data’s status as a Federation Citizen:
"Your honor, the courtroom is a crucible; in it, we burn away irrelevancies until we are left with a purer product: the truth, for all time."
To solve this problem, my client needed to find a basis—a frame of reference—that would allow her to cut through the complexity and see fundamental truths, to "burn away irrelevancies" until she was left with a purer product.  

And so she did.

She used the tools of multivariable calculus to slice away at those 7 random vectors, cutting through the redundancies, the extensions, the overlapsthe linear combinationsuntil only 3 remained, each pointing in a unique "direction."  

Out of a dense fuzz of complexity, a simple pattern of only 3 variables emerged. Here was the basis, the coordinate system, the frame of reference: the truth, for all time. 

The discovery is so spiritually uplifting that Pope Joseph Ratzinger himself is roused from his transcendent slumber and, in nothing more than his pointy Prada shoes, quickly issues a papal bull accusing multivariable calculus of molesting little children.   

The full text of Theodore P. Olson's Captain Jean-luc Picard's speech:
"Your honor, the courtroom is a crucible; in it, we burn away irrelevancies until we are left with a purer product: the truth, for all time. Now sooner or later, this man [Commander Maddox]—or others like him—will succeed in replicating Commander Data. The decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of people we are; what he is destined to be. It will reach far beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom: expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him [Commander Data] – and all who will come after him – to servitude and slavery? Your honor, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life: well, there it sits! Waiting." 


  1. i miss calculus so much! :(

  2. Yeah..and Ms. Lillian Kimura especially, who taught me that the idea of math is so much more powerful than the actual doing of math.

    But you can't really get the idea unless you do lots of math.

    Hi pimmy!