What Mr. Erickson Knew

Julian_fractal

Julian Fractal, By GARDEN [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite high school teachers was Mr. Erickson. He taught math, and also an introductory computer science class in the early days of computers. I did pretty well in math, even though it wasn’t a favorite subject. Mostly, I enjoyed Mr. Erickson because he enjoyed math (and some corny jokes)–it wasn’t just numbers and equations and laws to him, but rather something beautiful that could describe the order of the world and translate “the music of the spheres” into an equation.

I haven’t thought about Mr. Erickson for a long time. But two occurrences in my life recently have brought him to mind. One is that my son, a software engineer for a local company spent his vacation at a conference in Waterloo, Canada exploring the intersection of math and art. Back in elementary school, he had a teacher kind of like Mr. Erickson, who introduced him to fractals. He has never lost his fascination with this geometric patterns that often look like objects in the natural world (and sometimes not) that can be described in mathematical equations and produce repeating patterns at smaller and smaller scales. He has a shelf of graduate level texts at home on fractals (guess what is on his Christmas wish list!) and even has several fractal-related publications (as well as a work of fiction) you can purchase. The conference brought mathematicians and artists together to explore the connection between these two seemingly unrelated aspects of life–in visual art, music, and even opera and poetry from what I’m told.

The other occurrence is reading Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty for Truth’s SakeCaldecott argues that one of the great deficits in our modern educational program is the divorce of the liberal arts from math and the sciences.  This reflects a loss of vision for the unity and interconnectedness of all truth, and perhaps belief in the One in whom they are connected. In a chapter on math, he explores numbers and their expressions geometrically, their significance in a variety of areas of life (musical chords, the use of numerical and geometric properties by visual artists, recurring numbers in the Bible, and the ways mathematics maps onto the world, and more). Somehow, numbers and equations connect to imagination, and reflect beauty. Why is that?

Math and beauty? What Caldecott, Mr. Erickson, and my son all seem to get that I think I’ve lost sight of is the beauty that lies hidden in the equations. In my world, math gets reduced to spreadsheets, financial reports, columns of figures, raw data. Perhaps I’ve bought into that divorce between math and the world of the imagination and the beauty of the world. Perhaps it is time to recall the joy Mr. Erickson had when he explained the beauty in the equations. Perhaps…

2 thoughts on “What Mr. Erickson Knew

  1. Hi Bob,
    I graduated from Chaney in ’66 and had Mr. Erickson for physics. I loved him, too, because he made physics fun and relatable. One day he said, “Imagine you were in the Mafia and shot a bullet straight up into the air. What do you think would happen?” He had our attention immediately, given the car bombings and such that were in our news on a regular basis. Another great teacher was Mr. Tsvetanoff (sp?) who taught chemistry. He said that atoms were like music; think electrons and octaves. Einstein concurred that math was musical. A great memory of teachers who really were exceptional. Thanks for jogging it.

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