Mathematics and What It Means to Be Human, Part 1
In May 2009, Michele Osherow, an English professor at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and dramaturg at the Folger Theatre, in Washington, invited her colleague Manil Suri, a mathematician at the university, to act as mathematics consultant for the Folger’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. The play explores the relationship between past and present through the characters’ intellectual pursuits, poetic and mathematical. That led to a series of “show and tell” sessions explaining the mathematics behind the play to both cast members and audiences. In the fall of 2011, the two professors decided to take their collaboration to the classroom and jointly teach a freshman seminar, “Mathematics and What It Means to be Human.” Here is the first of a three-part series on how the experiment played out.
Manil Suri: The pre-theater talks I gave at the Folger really fired me up. Few intoxicants are as dangerous to a mathematician as an audience of laypeople willingly listening to a math lecture. So when Michele tantalized me with a whole semester’s worth of such highs with a class full of enthusiastic (OK, at least captive) students, the endorphin factory in my brain went into high alert.
I could be Johnny Appleseed, strewing impressionable young minds with the seeds of logic and algebra; or Florence Nightingale, bringing mathematical succor to these poor, deprived humanities rookies. This was a chance to engineer a grand meeting of diverse disciplines and worldviews—to create, in one corner of the university, our very own Arcadia.
My chairman was less enchanted by those lofty aspirations. In fact, he seemed downright distracted by the mundane matter of course release. “Who will cover the extra cost over what they’re offering?” he asked. I’ll skip the next part—squeezing out money, like squeezing out sausage, is best left off-screen. Suffice to say, we managed to get the go-ahead.