Mountains Beyond Molehills: Recovering the Lost Art of the Mathematics of Empathy


I was reading the other day about algebra.

The word “Algebra” originally had to do with the mathematics of fixing fractures. الجبر‎, or al-jabr meant putting broken stuff back together again.

Some translations of the word have to do with fractures, literally bone-setting, or reuniting shattered physical things. In some cases, algebra had to do with the settling of abstract “broken accounts,” such as in accounting, when you need variables to keep track of things that don’t add up.

What is interesting to me about the word algebra is that it immediately establishes a relationship between notions of medicine and mathematics.

Whereas an orthopedist might mend broken bones, for example, an algebraist could mend the fractures or fractals (or both) that occur when the way people understand math breaks down (such as when Benoit Mandelbrot noticed some broken bits in how math was being used to do finance).


Switching gears, in Team of Teams, Ret. General Stanley McChrystal advocates for a significantly less ego-driven approach towards orienting in response to a complex, rapidly changing world. He recommends that teams (instead of individuals) become the fundamental units of organization for decision making.

Among other things, Gen. McChrystal is interested in the merits of decentralization amidst rapidly changing, uncertain environments where communication is cheap and enforcement is not.

The last 20 years of network science has taught us many lessons, one of which is that size is not an asset when you are up against leaderless organizations. If anything, it is a liability.

And moreover, since we are already dealing with networks, that also means we have to contend with polarity, amplification, phases, orientation, sync, diversity, privacy, monetization, access, chaos….

Oh, and let’s not forget, that also means we have to deal with fake news.

Signed Sincerely, Fake News

Physicists & sci-fi enthusiasts love to debate the question, “What is reality?”

It’s an important question that can have very real consequences in “the real world,” (as most of us understand it) such as when an innocent man was burned to death because of a rumor started on WhatsApp.

Propaganda & disinformation campaigns are becoming more common all around the world, and the networks are more powerful than they ever have been before.

It does not feel good to admit this fact, but it is true, and the fact is we have less control over our networks with each passing year. This occurs concurrent to the increase in ambient noise pollution worldwide, and risks that radiate away from platform owners and onto users.

A divorce from shared language & experience

The mathematical history is long but over time a lot of bizarre fractures began to develop between the discrete world of our digital devices and the more bendy/wobbly/wiggly notions available to us in topology (and in the “real world”).

This mathematical divorce seems to have begun first in academia. It evolved over many years & involved tremendous amounts of ego. Luckily there were a few good trolls who snuck behind enemy ego lines to help keep progress alive and well (Erdős, Conway, Shannon, Baez, Didion, Banks, your contributions to the maths will never be forgotten).

Along the way, a couple of geniuses discovered the key to explaining everything but were attacked by protocol wizards who took advantage of common unicode blindspots. Things got a little weird (apparently devil music was involved?) but for the most part it’s all old history (Og én Til javanissen! as they say in France, much to the chagrin of their neighbor in the south, Portland. May the horse radishes never return and haunt this land again!)


What I am getting at here is that, although it will take some time, I believe that mathematics needs to recover the lost art of empathy, and that each of us has a wonderful opportunity to help it do exactly that.

It will require us to learn how to listen to one another again, and to remember how to listen to ourselves.

It will also require us to be much braver than we have been accustomed to lately, and to experience emotions that don’t fit into quantized curves & convenient labels that would best suit the product marketers.

We will have to think for ourselves and question our devices & biases.

We will also need to learn to live unafraid in the middle of a sometimes very terrifying world, and help others do the same.

But ultimately I think this can be done, and needs to be, and that we can succeed quickly if we do share this opportunity with others.

Because the way I see it right now, there are mountains beyond the molehills of the science that has come before us. And we need those mountains now more than ever.

It won’t always feel like it, but there is still hope on our horizons, particularly when you explore them with an intelligent team.

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

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