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bridges vol. 7, September 2005 / People in the Spotlight
by Philipp Steger

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 Judging by the recent surge of interest in the mathematician Rudolf Taschner and his ouevre, one might conclude that mathematics is hip and in - at least in Austria. Apparently, there is no dearth of people drawn to Taschner's irresistible promise that the Gordian knot, as mathematics appears to all too many people, can be cut. While Taschner doesn't make that promise literally - nor does he actually talk of a Gordian knot - he certainly refuses to admit defeat in the face of all the bad press mathematics has had over the years. Instead, he declares mathematics to be utterly beautiful, simply irresistible, and tremendously relevant.


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It is, nevertheless, a sad truth (especially sad to mathematicians) that even those adults who have somehow managed to survive the math classes in school with no major traumas, rarely feel inclined to tout the wonders and pleasures of mathematics, unless they have chosen mathematics as a profession (or simply want to show off). Taschner, a 51-year-old mathematics professor teaching both at Vienna's University of Technology and his own former high school, blames the traditional ways in which mathematics has been taught for this appalling lack of interest and enthusiasm. Mathematics, Taschner claims, is more often than not equated with calculating and, in the rare instances where school curricula move from arithmetic to mathematics, little effort is devoted to conveying the meaning and, ultimately, the relevance of mathematics to the befuddled students struggling with formulas that, to them, are devoid of practical meaning.

To listen to Taschner talk about how schools have failed math students - he argues that the way mathematics has been taught is akin to the teaching of a dead language, the way that Latin is often taught with no regard for its enormous cultural significance - is to get a sense of Professor Taschner as a Robin Hood-like figure defending the mathematically impaired and math-traumatized underdogs against the collective crimes of bad math teachers.

Taschner is, however, no lone Robin Hood scouring the mathematical equivalent of Sherwood Forest for mathematical malefactors. He is in good company. Recent years have seen an increased popular interest in mathematics, mathematicians, and their feats. In the US, writers like Sylvia Nassar (A Beautiful Mind), Amir D. Aczel (Fermat's Last Theorem), and many others have tackled what to many must seem the ultimate challenge: opening the black box - which mathematics is for most people, even the well-educated - and breathing life into numbers and theories. For the most part (the Hollywood adaptation of Nassar's novel is a notable exception), this has been done successfully and without trivializing or dumbing down the material at hand. And then there is, of course, a wealth of wonderfully written books that deal with mathematics itself, aiming to impart its pleasures to the uninitiated.

Not a math devotee myself, but tired of the scathing (or, even worse, benignly tolerant) looks I received when explaining that my science background was in law and political science, I decided a couple of years ago to brush up on my high school math, which wasn't all that great to begin with. Inspired by the remarks of co-authors George Lakoff and Rafael Nuñez (Where Mathematics Comes From) at an otherwise incomprehensible math workshop, I bought into their concept that mathematics is real in that it reflects our experience of the world. From that premise I concluded that everyone, including myself, could understand it. I yearned to understand it at a level beyond doing calculations. I wanted to get a sense of the elegance of mathematics that is so often mentioned. With much earnest determination and seriousness I threw myself into the study of this and other books. That was some years ago. Today I occasionally come across Lakoff and Nuñez's book, its beautiful cover beckoning to me, but only giving rise to a sense of defeat and even guilt. There is, I found, a definite limit to what you can learn from books. And that is particularly true for mathematics. The acquisition of true understanding requires a teacher, and a good one at that. It requires someone like Taschner, unfazed by the adversities that stem from mathematics' heavy baggage and the inadequacy of some students.

Taschner, a remarkable specimen of a mathematics teacher with an almost otherworldly enthusiasm for the topic and for teaching, certainly lives up to part of a layman's idea of a mathematician: he is smart and a quick thinker. During a conversation over coffee in one of the many Viennese coffeehouses that are Taschner's favorite hangouts, he made several facetious and witty remarks. By the time I had finally grasped the wittiness of one, Taschner had already passed on to the next. But, alas, Rudolf Taschner fails to live up to the other stereotypical expectations. He is not bland or boring: on the contrary, he is a congenial and entertaining conversationalist. He is not crazy or on the verge of becoming so. He might, for all we know, be a nerd, but he doesn't look it - except for a tendency to always wear a suit and tie.

But even more striking than all these qualities is the fact that Rudolf Taschner is a remarkably gifted storyteller. There is hardly a question you put to him that will not be answered with a story or anecdote, some of which are very much to the point, others more in the vein of Zen koans, apt to leave the questioner confused. Take, for example, the time a journalist asked Taschner whether everything in the universe can be calculated. Taschner replied "no," and backed up this curt answer with an illustration apparently taken from the Koan Department of his seemingly unlimited supply of stories. The story was funny and well-told. Still, the journalist's next question was: "What are you trying to say with this?"

But in most cases, Taschner has a wonderful knack for getting his ideas about mathematics across to others, including the mathematically challenged. How many math teachers would think of claiming that mathematics was invented on May 28th 585 BC when two armies - Taschner remained vague about the details - faced each other in battle. Terrified by a sudden solar eclipse, the soldiers of one army threw away their weapons and took off. Not so the other soldiers, who kept their cool because the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus had previously informed them about the eclipse, based on his calculations. Little does it matter that present-day scholars seriously doubt whether Thales would have had the expertise to predict either the locality or the nature of the eclipse, and thus influence the battle between King Alyattes of Lydia and King Cyaxares of Media. What matters is that it's a good story. And while it may not be the definitive answer on when and how mathematics was invented (or whether it is the product of invention at all), it's a memorable statement about the significance and the enormous impact mathematics has always had in human affairs.

Taschner's predilection for and mastery of storytelling is one of the reasons he was elected Austrian Scientist of the Year 2004. With their choice, the science journalists who choose Taschner as the awardee showed how much importance they accord to the ability to communicate the intricacies of science to a lay public in a way that's both engaging and educational. Taschner's main playground for implementing his vision of a different, more playful approach to teaching and communicating mathematics is the so-called math.space (see also article in this bridges edition "math.space in Vienna - Where Numbers Come Alive" ), a highly unusual platform within Vienna's MuseumsQuartier. Supported by his wife Bianca, the organizational and logistical mastermind of the initiative, Taschner uses the facility to talk about mathematics in a variety of different ways, reaching out to a broad array of different age groups. And while Taschner has successfully emphasized the enormous relevance of mathematics in our lives, fought against the common misconception of mathematics as abstract and utterly removed from the "real" world, and repeatedly showcased mathematics' usefulness, he is always quick to point out the intrinsic beauty and elegance, which make mathematics worth pursuing for its own sake. I have not yet had a chance to attend one of Taschner's much talked about lectures. But I can almost imagine what it must be like: some in the audience, I am sure, will look at this man, who has the nerve to claim that mathematics can be as exciting as a first kiss, with a mixture of awe and suspicion. After all, haven't we learned the hard way that mathematics is not for the faint of heart? But some will listen and be mesmerized in the same way we used to be by a magician pulling a white rabbit from his hat. For them, there is hope indeed.


Note:
On November 7th, 2005 Prof. Rudolf Taschner will give a lecture at the Embassy of Austria in Washington, DC. On the occasion of being elected Austrian Scientist of the Year 2004, he is invited by the OST to present his work and the "math.space" as a best-practice model to an American audience. If you would like to learn more about the event or to RSVP, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..{/access}