Tuesday, September 16, 2008

NYT on Gut instincts Suprising role in mathematics

This NYT article by Natalie Angier, "Gut Instinct's Surprising Role in Mathmematics" is kind of interesting to me - as I live in a family of natural math brains. They have the natural circuitry. I don't. (Although I did 100% on 12 passes of that dot quiz. Didn't have time to run the suggested 25.) I'm always fascinated the the natural inclination of our minds. Like I struggle so much with my memory these days yet there's still tons of information that I retain much better than those around me. It's just that I don't have control of what I'm remembering. My brain makes it's own priorities.

One research team has found that how readily people rally their approximate number sense is linked over time to success in even the most advanced and abstruse mathematics courses. Other scientists have shown that preschool children are remarkably good at approximating the impact of adding to or subtracting from large groups of items but are poor at translating the approximate into the specific. Taken together, the new research suggests that math teachers might do well to emphasize the power of the ballpark figure, to focus less on arithmetic precision and more on general reckoning.

“When mathematicians and physicists are left alone in a room, one of the games they’ll play is called a Fermi problem, in which they try to figure out the approximate answer to an arbitrary problem,” said Rebecca Saxe, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is married to a physicist. “They’ll ask, how many piano tuners are there in Chicago, or what contribution to the ocean’s temperature do fish make, and they’ll try to come up with a plausible answer.”

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