Mathematics Is Worthy

“When I began my college education, I still had many doubts about whether I was good enough for mathematics. Then a colleague said the decisive words to me: it is not that I am worthy to occupy myself with mathematics, but rather that mathematics is worthy for one to occupy oneself with.”

Rózsa Péter
Mathematics is beautiful
essay in The Mathematical Intelligencer

Rózsa Péter and the Curious Students

I would like to win over those who consider mathematics useful, but colourless and dry — a necessary evil…
 
No other field can offer, to such an extent as mathematics, the joy of discovery, which is perhaps the greatest human joy.
 
The schoolchildren that I have taught in the past were always attuned to this, and so I have also learned much from them.
 
It never would have occurred to me, for instance, to talk about the Euclidean Algorithm in a class with twelve-year-old girls, but my students led me to do it.
 
I would like to recount this lesson.
 
What we were busy with was that I would name two numbers, and the students would figure out their greatest common divisor. For small numbers this went quickly. Gradually, I named larger and larger numbers so that the students would experience difficulty and would want to have a procedure.
 
I thought that the procedure would be factorization into primes.
 
They had still easily figured out the greatest common divisor of 60 and 48: “Twelve!”
 
But a girl remarked: “Well, that’s just the same as the difference of 60 and 48.”
 

 
“That’s a coincidence,” I said and wanted to go on.
 
But they would not let me go on: “Please name us numbers where it isn’t like that.”
 
“Fine. 60 and 36 also have 12 as their greatest common divisor, and their difference is 24.”
 

 
Another interruption: “Here the difference is twice as big as the greatest common divisor.”
 
“All right, if this will satisfy all of you, it is in fact no coincidence: the difference of two numbers is always divisible by all their common divisors. And so is their sum.”
 
Certainly that needed to be stated in full, but having done so, I really did want to move on.
 
However, I still could not do that.
 
A girl asked: “Couldn’t they discover a procedure to find the greatest common divisor just from that?”
 

 
They certainly could! But that is precisely the basic idea behind the Euclidean Algorithm!
 
So I abandoned my plan and went the way that my students led me.
 

— Rózsa Péter
quoted at the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive

For Further Exploration

Note: When the video narrator says “Greatest Common Denominator,” he really means “Greatest Common Divisor.”


The Challenge Continues

This is my third contribution to the blogging challenge #MTBoSBlaugust.

I’m aiming for at least one post each week. A simple, modest goal. But if I manage it, that will be four times the pace I’ve set in recent months.

So far, so good…

CREDITS: “Pink toned thoughts on a hike” photo courtesy of Simon Matzinger on Unsplash.

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