Never—no, always—take the shortcut!

“Abjure the hypotenuse!”

That’s what our busy high school dean (also assistant headmaster and sole college counselor) George Grenville Benedict—called G2 by the students (behind his back)—was famous for saying. As my classmate Alba Briggs publicly observed on screen in Kevin Rafferty’s great documentary Regular Guys, Dean Benedict literally meant “don’t walk on the grass” but really meant “there are no shortcuts in life.”

In contrast, I recently read Thinking Better, by Marcus Du Sautoy. Subtitle: The Art of the Shortcut in Math and Life. So, yes, there are shortcuts in life, and many of them come from math. Take them.

How do we resolve the Benedict/Du Sautoy conflict?

The issue, of course, is not really binary. According to Du Sautoy, one of the world’s great math popularizers, there are compelling reasons for taking some shortcuts—not all, just some—but how do we identify them, and what do we learn along the way? As I was in the process of reading Thinking Better, I happened to listen to a Freakonomics episode that was all about this very book. You may think it’s a coincidence, but it’s not. Anyway, although most of the book is about math at least peripherally, the theme overall is much more about life, although “you may have to squint to see it,” as Dubner says during the show. This is one of the rare variety of books where the carefully crafted Table of Contents actually gives you a good picture of what’s inside, as long as you give it some thought:

Finally, if you’re a fan of Dune, you may be interested in Allegra K.’s comment about shortcuts:

Herbert borrowed both the term and the meaning from the Zohar, in which the Hebrew Kefitzat Haderech(קפיצﬨ הדרךּ) refers to a shortened road or journey, a miraculous leap between locations. Indeed, Herbert seems to have taken inspiration from Kabbalistic thought in many respects when writing Dune, a story that delves deep into themes of messianism and esoteric or mystical knowledge, both important concepts in Kabbalah. 

Categories: Books, Life, Math, Teaching & Learning