Ten lessons from a mathematical education

As you might know, the vision for the University of Strathclyde is to become the MIT of Scotland. Of course one might ask, why specifically of Scotland and not of the UK, or of Europe, or, for that matter, of the south-west of Scotland, or of Glasgow. In any case, the ambition is admirable and we are doing all we can to see it come true. For that reason we are publishing in this issue of DoF some thoughts of a great MIT mathematician, Gian-Carlo Rota, who as you can verify by following the references on his Wikipedia page, “would not teach without a can of Coca-Cola, and handed out prizes ranging from Hershey bars to pocket knives to students who asked questions in class or did well on tests.” (Pocket knives? In Glasgow we can do without this particular MIT tradition! Come to think of it, Hershey bars?) He also said:

I am often asked why there are so few applied mathematicians in the department at MIT. The reason is that all of MIT is one huge applied mathematics department; you can find applied mathematicians in practically every department at MIT except mathematics.

This sentence should give you pause for thought. It is taken from a lecture he gave to the MIT Alumni Association’s Family Weekend in the autumn of 1996, the title of the lecture being Ten lessons of an MIT education. You can read it in full, but here are his ten lessons:

1: You can and will work at a desk for seven hours straight, routinely.

2: You learn what you don’t know you are learning.

3: By and large, “knowing how” matters more than “knowing what”.

4: In science and engineering, you can fool yourself very little of the time.

5: You don’t have to be a genius to do creative work.

6: You must measure up to a very high level of performance.

7: The world and your career are unpredictable, so you are better off learning subjects of permanent value.

8: You are never going to catch up, and neither is anyone else.

9: The future belongs to the computer-literate-squared.

10: Mathematics is still the queen of the sciences.

I have two remarks, one serious, one less so. With respect to Lesson 3, the “by and large” qualification is important: knowing how matters only after you know what, and even more importantly, why. As to Lesson 4, it is yourself — which incidentally is missing from the lecture transcript — that makes it true: one can always fool most people most of the time and some people all the time. These, in the immortal words of George W. Bush, who definitely did not have the benefit of an MIT (or a Strathclyde) education, “are the ones you should concentrate on”: if what you want to do is to fool people.


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One Response to Ten lessons from a mathematical education

  1. Pingback: Aiming high | Degree of Freedom

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