Hello, dear reader, and happy spring(?)! ‘Tis the season for fresh starts and new beginnings, and so I have recently decided to extend a second chance to my lifelong foe: STEM. Like many English majors, I presume, I have gone to great lengths to avoid subjects with the suffix -ology or -onomy or -metry or -gebra. Case in point—I recently completed my quantitative reasoning requirement (yay me) by taking… political science. The least sciency science of all.
Indeed, ours is a mutual hate, and so to bridge the gap between the humanities and STEM, I reached out to the STEMiest person I know: Sam Hiken. Sam is a senior math and computer science double major who goes to algebra club for funsies. He can often be found roaming the halls of the CMC, a true creature in the wild. To observe Sam in his natural habitat, I sat down with him in the Anderson atrium, and thus began my quest to determine whether our two disciplines are really so different after all.
I first asked Sam whether he actually liked math, reminding him that we were in a safe space where c*lculus couldn’t hurt him. He assured me that he does “like math, I think,” commending it as the “simplest of all academic fields of study.” He then proceeded to use three adjectives that I have never in my life heard associated with math: “beautiful,” “neat,” and “elegant.”
While math and I have a very complex hate-hate relationship, Sam warmed me to the idea that math can be an art form in its own right. He criticized the subject’s “unearned reputation” for producing a “weird phobia of math,” claiming that people study it because of its “aesthetic beauty and elegance,” which he then likened to English majors being “interested in appreciating works of literature.” In what was a huge victory, however, he conceded that no one actually likes computer science. (I might be extrapolating a little bit here, but that was the gist, I swear.)
In addition to exploring Sam’s passion for math and tolerance of computer science, we also discussed his relationship to literature. I asked Sam whether he had ever taken a class in the English department, and if so, why did he not become a major. Sam shared that his A&I was Visions of the Waste Land with Greg Smith and proceeded to laud the class, uttering the best phrase I’ve heard all week: “I think English is cool.” He then revealed the extent of his foray into the literary world, describing his experience with “literature-adjacent” classes including ones on The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace. While he admitted that he ultimately chose a major which he believed would develop a “clear set of hard skills,” he doubled down on his claim that “literary analysis is really interesting and cool.”
At this point in the conversation, Sam and I attempted to discover whether there might be mutual applicability between literature and math. While Carleton boasts initiatives seeking to promote writing across the disciplines, I questioned whether there might be use for math across the disciplines, and particularly in literature, besides its obvious utility when counting the pages left in one’s book. Sam then posited that math is essentially a “really rigorous philosophy,” arguing that “in a sense, a lot of literary criticism is sort of like bad math.” He elaborated by explaining math as “the pure distillation of logical reasoning” and claiming that “presumably you’re using some logical reasoning when taking an English class; there’s just less of it.” Sam assured me that this was a joke. Nevertheless, I remain unconvinced.
Toward the end of our interview, Sam and I played a couple of games. First, there was the obligatory round of the timeless Court,* Marry, Kill. For our special math edition, Sam had to choose between algebra, geometry, and calculus. Obviously, because he is a sane human being, Sam decided to “kill calculus, for sure.” He then said that he would court geometry because “there are so many nice shapes” (LOL, ever the gentleman), and marry algebra because “it’s so elegant and nice.”
*This is not the word we actually used, but alas, this is a job, and as we all know, jobs can be lost.
We then decided to exchange assignments—Sam would have three minutes to complete a close reading exercise, and I would have three minutes to complete a difficult math problem. For Sam’s assignment, I gave him a passage from James Joyce’s “The Dead” featuring what I have long believed to be the most confounding sentence in the English language. (What on God’s green earth does Lily mean by “palaver”? Is that sentence even a sentence? Whatever.)
Sam, who has never read “The Dead,” began with a competent summary of the interaction between Lily and Gabriel. He described the bizarre “palaver” sentence as meaning that “men these days are only in it for themselves,” and so we agreed that this was Joyce’s way of saying that “men are trash.” In what was a fascinating observation, Sam picked up on some *tension* between Gabriel and Lily, noting their age difference and that “the dynamics here are not completely free of problematic elements… they’re alone now in the pantry, having been at this party—what are they going to be getting up to?”
With this question lingering in our minds, it was then my turn, at which point Sam asked me to prove a theorem found under Wikipedia’s page on “isomorphism theorems.”
Of course, I did not have the written version while doing the exercise. Because that would have been too easy. And so most of the three minutes were spent trying to recreate the question:
Finally, as a parting gift, Sam and I gave each other math-themed comics and memes. I provided one from my father’s Far Side desk calendar. Sam, alternatively, shared one which he prefaced by referring to it as “a personal favorite of mine.” Mind you, this portion of the interview took place over text. Sam did not have advance warning that it would happen. And still, somehow, he really had one cued up and ready to go anyway.
It is true that I might not understand Sam’s mind, and I remain unable to bask in the glory that is apparently math, as I am perpetually cursed with the affliction of that aptly named “weird phobia.” Still, I learned something that day. Something big, something beautiful, something which I could before only suspect. In all of his mathematical wisdom, Sam taught me something about myself, for which I will be forever grateful.
I am so very happy to be an English major <3
No math majors were harmed in the making of this article.