“It would, I suppose, be quite possible to teach a deaf and dumb child to play the piano. When it played a wrong note, it would see the frown of its teacher, and try again. But it would obviously have no idea of what it was doing, or why anyone should devote hours to such an extraordinary exercise. It would have learnt an imitation of music, and it would fear the piano exactly as most students fear what is supposed to be mathematics.”

Mathematician’s Delight, W. W. Sawyer ( 1911-2008 )

The mission of this blog is to present and explore mathematics as a rich and deep way of thinking about the world.

12 Responses to About

  1. Alison says:

    I would just like to point out that in one of the other posts you changed Jana to Jane once or twice.
    Perhaps you should hire an editor?

  2. Bert Speelpenning says:

    I could certainly use a good editor!

  3. Peter Osterhaus says:

    Hi Bert,

    Finally got to your website and am enjoying looking around. Math is not something I have had to encounter since high school, but with an analogy like “math is a garden,” it seems a much more friendly place than I remember! The writing is excellent and I’ll brouse through some of your esoteric math concepts as time permits.

    Peter Osterhaus

  4. Bert Speelpenning says:

    Thank you for this!

  5. Laura Wolz says:

    I find my self fascinated by the premise of your blog and some of your musings. I no longer teach math (much). When I did the joy of being in the process was that of an exploration/initiation into developing an intellectually consistent view of one’s life and to appreciate others’ point of view (not every one gets to the same solution following the same procedure) whether it be in mathematics or.., well, whatever.

    Thanks much for your time

  6. Laura,
    Thank you for your comments!

    There really can be a joy in learning to appreciate others’ point of view. The world makes some kind of interesting sense, when viewed from where they are standing. How they see the world usually does work, in a way and up to a point. What makes teaching challenging is that you are usually in a situation (sometimes a situation you have carefully constructed) where the student comes face to face with the limitations of how they currently see the world. That’s where learning happens, the kind of learning that goes deeper than simply adding more facts and tricks into one’s backpack.
    There is a huge opportunity for the teacher to learn, not just learning about teaching, but also learning new depths of the mathematics, from careful observation of student work.

    Your point that this phenomenon goes well beyond mathematics is well taken. I’ve chosen to focus on math, primarily because the math curriculum plays such a gatekeeper role in the world of jobs and advanced education. Also, and related, because people’s relationship to failure tends to be so colored by their experience in math class.

  7. Bill Robertson says:


    Did you attend Univ. of Illinois in 1976-77?

  8. Bert Speelpenning says:


    Yes, I was at the University of Illinois from 1975 through 1979. I was awarded a PhD in Computer Science in January 1980.

    • Paula Bernstein says:


      I followed the link to your blog from the GAA announcement of your talk on Sunday. This was one of first few items I opened and read. Upon seeing your last comment, an OMG flew out of my mouth. You and I were (probably) in the same building at the same time. I was at the U. of I. in Urbana from 1975 to 1977, in that “little” computer science building on Springfield (?), barely ever coming out for air.

      Unless you were at the Chicago campus?

      Paula Bernstein

      • Bert Speelpenning says:

        Yes, most of my time there was at the DCL building on Springfield. I had an office there in 1978 and 1979, in the basement, sharing it with 2 or 3 other students. I was reminiscing recently with Allen Yang, who you may also know. Seems like a number of life times ago!

  9. Susan Dingle says:

    Dear Bert, Would like to transform a terror of math into something empowering. Do you have anything for that?

  10. I stumbled here looking for what is a unary minus – I’m a tech writer and needed that bit of info. As a word person, I feel left out of the language of math, and suffer deep math envy. I love to read popular science books like those of Brian Greene, which only makes it worse! As a garden person (and blogger) I like your analogy to a garden. Do you think there’s hope for me and my ilk?

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