Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Interview with the Author of Mathematics: Is God Silent?

I met James D. Nickel at Bethany Fellowship in 1976, a Missionary Training Center in Bloomington, MN. We were both amongst the older set of freshman who came in that year, have been through college and a bit more seasoned by life, which added value and perspective to our experience.

In those days we called him Jim. At 6'6" with brillo pad hair he was someone you looked up to. I did, especially, as the shortest member of our Bethany Men's Quartet, which we originally called The Glory Boys, along with 6'5" Jim Towner and my 6'2" room mate Ken. With Jim Nickel's great bass voice (I chimed in at high tenor) we'd sing in the stairwells (the acoustics were terrific), in the dining hall, and eventually at a number of churches around the Twin Cities. Those were fun memories.

A major feature of the school's training was a research paper called the Senior Project. I remember reading a draft of Jim's paper and being impressed with his lucidity on this topic. Eventually the seeds of that research led to his commitment to complete a richly insightful book called Mathematics: Is God Silent?

Rather than break this interview into three segments, I will violate the principle of keeping blog entries brief and dissect the interview in half, the rest to follow tomorrow. Please read it all because James offers a wealth of insight here.

Ennyman: When did you first take an interest in mathematics?
JDN: High school, the result of the influence of my Algebra/Geometry teacher Wilbert Reimer (1965-1967). Unlike most high school math teachers, he was a mathematician and he knew what he was doing. He was tall, thin, reserved (when something excited him, he merely “raised his eyebrows”), and possessed a quiet, yet sparkling wit. He would give extra credit questions on his math tests like, “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” and “When was the War of 1812 fought?”

In college, I decided to major in math (simply because of all the subjects, I liked it the most). My freshman Calculus instructor was Larry Walker, a former World War II B17 bombardier. I remember him connecting math to the parabolic flight of bombs as they are released from the bomb bay … unforgettable images!

As the course material advanced beyond differential and integral calculus, it seemed like I had entered into an n dimensional domain of transcendent abstract analysis, aimed not at the Elysian fields of delight, but at the specter of the null and the void. On graduation day, I made an internal vow, “I will never open another math book again as long as I live.” I had the opportunity then to go into graduate school but why study the void? I chose a more practical and financial rewarding route … computer programming (where I spent nearly 25 years of my working life).

After college and entering the work force (1973), my interest in mathematics waned. I was seeing it connected to something tangible, though, because of my work for the United States Navy (I had to write code dealing with three-dimensional coordinate systems tracking F14A Tomcat test flights).

In 1976, I traded work (and its mathematical connections) for missionary training. I never thought I would ever be involved with mathematics again, but, as part of my training (1978-1979), I found myself teaching a year of high school math in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii (with Youth With A Mission). In this tropical paradise, my interest in mathematics was rekindled after meeting, in April of 1979, Dr. Glenn R. Martin (1935-2004), professor of history at Indiana Wesleyan University (then known as Marion College). In a series of profound lectures, he affirmed that all knowledge is understood in terms of presuppositions and that mathematics needed to be studied (and, more importantly, reinterpreted) on that basis. These lectures formed a catalyst that brought mathematics back under my purview, but this time on a foundational and thereby highly motivating level! I began a long and pleasurable journey of rethinking the subject, a study that eventually culminated in the publication (first printing in 1989) of Mathematics: Is God Silent?

Ennyman: What were the most surprising things you discovered as you studied the lives of great mathematicians while working on your first book, Mathematics: Is God Silent?
JDN: I had never known anything about the lives of the great mathematicians, especially the key ones … Galileo, Kepler, Newton, etc. In the early months of 1982, before leaving the States to work as a Christian schoolteacher in Australia, I read Morris Kline’s Mathematics and the Physical World (1959). In it (p. 119), he had this quote by Kepler from The Harmony of the World (1619), “The wisdom of the Lord is infinite; so also are His glory and His power. Ye heavens, sing His praises! Sun, moon, and planets glorify Him in your ineffable language! Celestial harmonies, all ye who comprehend His marvelous works, praise Him. And thou, my soul, praise thy Creator! It is by Him and in Him that all exists. That which we know best is comprised in Him, as well as in our vain science. To Him be praise, honor, and glory throughout eternity.” Astonished, I thought, “I never learned this in school!” Thus, during my years in Australia (1982-1987), I researched the lives of many famous mathematicians and scientists. I spent countless (and highly enjoyable) hours at the library of the University of Adelaide combing through stacks of books, both off the shelves and from its special loan section. The most surprising discovery that I made was reading Kepler. He would write page after page of math equations and then, overwhelmed by what he was seeing in them, pause to write a psalm of praise to God! Then, he would continue with his equations and, a few pages later, stop and compose another paean!

Another fascinating mathematician I learned about is Leonhard Euler (1707-1783), a man whose gift of systematics enabled him to explore and expose a multiplicity of “unities in diversities” within the structure of mathematics. Euler, the mathematician, was also a gifted teacher (you cannot always equate the two). He wrote one of the first textbooks on the Calculus and every succeeding Calculus textbook (approaching “infinity” as a limit!) owes Euler a substantial debt. Everyone should read his fascinating “Letters to a German Princess” (1768-1772). As a committed Christian, Euler often received the vitriolic “wit-wrath” of Voltaire and other French atheists. One of them, Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), encapsulated Euler’s influence on mathematics, “Read Euler, read Euler, he is the master [i.e., teacher] of us all.”

Kline and a host of other mathematics historians are naturalistic in their presuppositions. To them, the devotion of Kepler (and others like him) to God form an anomaly. Science historian Stanley L. Jaki (1924-2009) amplifies the reason why, “When historians are baffled by ‘the religious convictions that formerly motivated some of the finest research,’ it is because they have never experienced what it means to look at the world as the product of a personal, rational Creator” (The Road of Science and the Ways to God, p. 47).

Not all of the scientists and mathematicians of the 16th to 18th centuries were thorough going and consistent Christians, but all of them, Christian and non-Christian, were doing mathematics in a framework or cultural ambiance built upon Biblical Christian truth: (1) God is a Wise and Rational Creator and (2) His creation reflects His wisdom and rationality. Hence, we can expect to find, via mathematics and science, laws that are “commentaries” on the “language fabric” of creation.

Ennyman: Why is it that so many people seem to be intimidated by math, especially the higher levels like trig and calculus?
JDN: Primarily, the intimidation comes from two sources: (1) the symbology and (2) the disconnect with wonder. Mathematics is a unique language and, in order to appreciate its wonder and power, you must first master its grammar. Many math teachers (and textbooks) do not know how to teach this grammar in a way that engenders mastery. Professor Warren W. Esty of Montana State University has written a wonderful text that attempts to fix the problem: The Language of Mathematics.

In the 1960s, Morris Kline said, in effect, that math teachers know little of how to connect mathematics to the physical world (i.e., science). Since then, nothing much has changed (but there are some splendid exceptions … see the textbooks written by Harold R. Jacobs as an example). My daughter’s College Calculus teacher just taught the “mechanics” of the subject. He never connected any of the concepts to history or physics (where the methods of the Calculus really “shine”). More students would get excited about math if a teacher taught it in a classroom with “walls open to the outside world.” Topics of biography, history, and elementary physics are portals to wonder. For one example of how to do this, see my essay on the rainbow.


As one who both loved and burned out on mathematics during my school years, I find these thoughts inspirational. Come back tomorrow for the rest of this valuable interview.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with what JDN said. I'm currently a college student and honestly I was not really into math and the reasons are exactly as he stated. I'm afraid of those intimidating looking symbols and syntax, and I don't see how math is telling the story of everything, every phenomenon happening around us. I've been able to developed a better "feel" for math as a language, but that was only after the 3rd Physics class I took in college. I wish I had understood this sooner. Anyway, I'm glad I have been able to see it a little more clearly, though I still need to study a lot more to understand the language of math properly.

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