Where math leads us

Congratulations to Tamara DeFord of Ecole College Heights Elementary for winning the Outstanding Elementary School Teacher award for 2019-20 from the British Columbia Association of Mathematics Teachers.

“I want them (her students) to know that math is more than just calculations, that math is all around us in the world and that it can be really fun and really creative,” the Grade 5-6 teacher said.

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DeFord is doing current and future generations a great service if she inspires even just a handful of kids to pursue the incredible diversity of career options in math, from accounting, finance, economics and statistics to computer science, physics and pure mathematics.

Pure math and theoretical physics over the past century have strayed into philosophy, as Albert Einstein was both excited and dismayed to discover. His theories of relativity explained and predicted so much universal phenomena that were later discovered, from black holes to gravitational waves, but his calculations also reached some mind-blowing conclusions.

If reality is actually a four-dimensional structure called spacetime, then our linear understanding of time is an illusion. In the same way that bats and dolphins communicate at pitches humans cannot hear directly or insects see ultraviolet light, perhaps our senses and human consciousness itself are simply evolutionary constructs to perceive time as distinct and separate from space to help us succeed as a species.

To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, oh, the places you can go with math!

Einstein was less bothered about the ramifications of spacetime than he was about quantum mechanics. 

At the building block level of matter itself, the regular rules of physics don’t apply. In superposition, matter can be in two states or positions at once. Yet under observation, superposition collapses. To use a famous example, Schrodinger’s cat is both alive and dead in its box but the moment the box is opened, the cat is alive or dead.

“God does not play dice,” Einstein famously quipped in frustration, convinced reality couldn’t be so flimsy and random.

Since his death, however, those scientific and mathematical concepts have been refined to power computers, cell phones and digital communication.

In other words, anyone who believes they are seeing and hearing their loved one through Facetime also has to reckon with the prospect of infinite realities and multiverses, so near and so far away.

When DeFord tells her students that math is all around us, theoretical physicists like Max Tegmark take the numbers one step further. In his 2014 book Our Mathematical Universe, Tegmark made a bold and compelling case that reality itself might be – in its purest form - a complex mathematical structure where all space and time exists simultaneously. Put another way, math might be everywhere (and everywhen) because it forms the basis of everything, he argues.

The math and science doesn’t exist yet to fully test such a radical hypothesis but the current accepted calculations and philosophy suggest such a notion is within the realm of possibility.

Perhaps DeFord has or is about to inspire the young girl or boy who will dive down this rabbit hole and transform the world and our understanding of it by finding some answers to such tantalizing puzzles.

Great teachers like DeFord inspire young minds to reach beyond the possible.

Math is the best tool we have to explore what lies there.

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