Laughter comes from many places and takes many forms. That passenger on the bus is chuckling at a well-written quip in a good novel. The giggling fit from the other room is your family reacting to the hero of an action-comedy making a pratfall. Raucous laughter reverberates through the house at 3 am as you watch yet another YouTube video starring a funny animal. We all enjoy a good laugh*, and sometimes we’re okay with brainless cat videos*2; other times, we want our laughter to come with a side of enlightenment, or at least a new factoid we can use to impress our friends.
Before I get into the funny books*3, I’d like to draw attention toHa! the Science of When We Laugh and Why by Scott Weems, which examines exactly what it promises with that title. It isn’t a funny book in and of itself; sure, there are jokes scattered throughout, but they’re there to support the book’s scientific approach to humour. Besides exploring what makes us laugh, Weems also examines what laughter does to our brains. Did you know that “getting” a joke fires the parts of our brain that deal with conflict resolution? Or that laughter therapy is a legitimate treatment in hospitals*4? It also lightly touches on how humour changes across cultures around the world. While it’s a pop-sci style book, don’t go into this one expecting a light and breezy read, as Weems doesn’t shy away from getting technical. This book won’t make you funnier or draw out a hearty guffaw, but it will help you understand why you’re laughing at the next couple of books.
I know basically every celebration of pi day (March 14, because pi = 3.14…) turns into a celebration of pie, and I’d never say no to pie, but what if we could celebrate with delicious pies while also learning more about what math is at the same time? Conveniently enough, Eugenia Cheng, author of X + Y, has already done this for us: How to Bake π.
Now, I’m going to take a bit of a detour away from tasty delicious pie and into the world of knitting for a brief moment. Upon asking a college classroom what came to mind when asked about mathematics, math professor Sara Jensen found the top two words were “calculation” and “equation”. Asked the same question, professional mathematicians gave quite a different response: “critical thinking” and “problem-solving”. Which prompted Jensen to “eliminate pencil, paper, calculator (gasp) and textbook from the classroom completely. Instead, we talked, used our hands, drew pictures… And of course, we knit” (Jensen, Why I Teach Math Through Knitting), in an attempt to bridge the gap between how students approached math (calculating equations, memorizing proofs…drudgery) and how math could actually be used as a tool, engaging learners by making the learning interesting and more hands-on. I’ve joked before about how I’ve done more linear algebra while knitting than learning it in class, and certainly with more of a vested interest in how the abstract numbers translate to the physical object! And I’ve also thanked Pythagoras before for imparting his theorem to us while figuring out how to calculate length as I knit on a bias. In fact, I have found myself wanting to engage more with math as I knitted more and more, making alterations and designing my own items – it’s all the same math I learned by rote back in school, approached with a lot more enthusiasm now in comparison, and willingly at that!
And it’s exactly this work of transforming how we think of math, from equations and calculations to problem-solving and critical thinking, that Cheng does in How to Bake Pi. She makes math fun to learn, and accessible to audiences of varying levels of math knowledge, which is quite a feat!
The Dot & the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics by Norton Juster is absolutely delightful, featuring a love triangle between a “sensible straight line who was hopelessly in love with a dot”, who was of course hanging out with “a wild and unkempt squiggle”. Accompany your reading with the short animated film on YouTube (and apparently also as a special feature in The Glass Bottom Boat DVD, of which we own 3 copies, so feel free to check that out).
The overall structure of the plot arc is quite predictable, but that’s not where the charm of this wonderful romance lies. Part of it, I’m sure, is just in the fact that it was written in the 60s, so some of the phrasing is a touch quaint reading it now, but I want to say that the charm of it is simply in the fact that this is a mathematical romance. It’s dedicated to Euclid! There are math puns & references everywhere (though some of them smarter than others), and the entire novel(la) is overall a delightful romp. And as some of you know, despite math not being anywhere near my forte, I have a love of it all the same. You don’t really learn anything about shapes or math in any way apart from how to creatively apply lines and shapes, but that’s why it’s a romance in lower mathematics, right?*