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From the Ivory Tower Kitchen: The Taste of Mathematics

02/25/2015 11:14 am ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

The most widespread notion is that mathematics has a role in food preparation only because as cooks, we sometimes need to measure, convert, scale, and optimize. Since I've embarked on this what is now a decade-long journey of a dual life as a mathematician and chef, the most obvious impression is that because I have a good feeling for numbers, I must be a good cook (baker). Frankly, that is hardly the reason I am a good cook. My abilities stem from my vast experience with a myriad of ingredients, fascination with the cultures of the world, many good teachers and inspirations, an academic point of view, a fear of failure, and ultimately, a discerning palate.

I've been a mathematician longer than I've been a cook although one might argue that I've spent an equal time doing each activity. My students can attest that I am constantly trying to preach about the art of mathematics. It is the queen of all sciences and is fraught with beauty, precision, art (yes, art), and believe or not, subjectivity. The late famous mathematician Paul Erdős used to sometimes say, "This one's from the Book!" He was known to say this in regard to any particularly beautiful or elegant proof, referring to a mythical book in which God wrote the proofs for all theorems. The common misconception is that mathematics is "cut and dry", cold, and devoid of flavor. This couldn't be further from the truth. At least, we mathematicians know that. When I am confronted by a student who questions my requirement of an elegant proof to a theorem, as opposed to one that is simply (sometimes, barely) correct, I am quick to point about that his/her proof is lacking in taste. It is correct, but it is insipid. It is not different from a plate of food which may be perfectly edible and be comprised of the ingredients that the guest ordered or is expecting, but one that is lacking in flavor. Flavor is where it's all at. Anybody can put properly cooked food on the plate, but does it taste like all it can be?

There is correct (adequate) mathematics and there is the beautiful (delicious) mathematics - filled with depth, nuances, flavor, and even comfort. As educators, we have to overcome the stereotype that mathematics is only for the nerds and that it lacks artistry. To taste great mathematics is akin to experiencing mind-altering music or art. Many of us can do correct mathematics, but to advance it requires the ability to layer the flavors of its concepts in creative thoughtful and often surprising ways. When I return to doing mathematical research during my upcoming sabbatical leave from Stetson University, I will be equipped with a point of view which is layered, colorful, and textured. I believe that it will allow me to consider paths of solutions to the problems in ways I couldn't have was I not a good cook. I am looking to not just discovering (new) correct mathematics, but rather tasting it along the way and presenting it with the same passion as I do food for both academic and general consumption.