Edward Frenkel: What is it that distinguishes us from, you know, cavemen? I would say it’s the level of abstraction that we can reach. And, you know, to give a simple example, it used to be that there was barter trading so you would exchange, you know, wheat for meat or something like this. But then eventually there was an abstract idea, the idea of money. You know, it’s like a piece of paper but this piece of paper actually signifies a certain value and you can exchange it for goods and services. So that’s the next level of abstraction. But now we are dealing with an even higher level of abstraction because I don’t actually see money that much. I see a piece of plastic, credit cards. I swipe my credit card.
So suddenly that’s the next level of abstraction. So this credit card somehow has become this abstract entity which carries money – which itself carries certain wealth, right. And now we’re going even deeper. Now money could be nothing but a line of code which appears in a Bitcoin ledger. So that’s the kind of progression, that’s the kind of, you know, evolution that I’m talking about. Evolution of abstraction. And so abstraction is king in this brave new world and the key to abstraction is mathematics.
And I do believe that we will have a better freer society when we have less math ignorance and we have more understanding of mathematics. And, of course, I’m not saying that everyone should become a mathematician. On the contrary.
But what I would – what I dream of is a society in which if mathematics is brought up people don’t run away from it – don’t say, “Oh my gosh, this is terrible. I hate mathematics. I don’t want to talk about it. I’m scared. I’m frightened.” And I understand why people are scared and frightened. It’s not their fault. It’s because of how mathematics is taught in our schools. But it’s a very unfortunate situation when you can’t even begin a conversation about mathematics without people saying, “Oh my gosh. I don’t want to talk about it.” And it’s kind of strange because no one would ever say, “I hate literature” or “I hate art” or “I hate music.” At least intelligent people would never say that. It’s kind of shameful to say that.
But it’s perfectly okay in our society to say, “I hate mathematics.” So that’s where, I think, where there’s so much work that can be done and needs to be done. And so what I dream of is a society in which not every – it’s not that everyone has a Ph.D. in mathematics but rather I would like to live in a society in which if mathematics is brought up someone would say, “Oh, mathematics. Interesting. How do I find out more and to give me a gist of the idea? I’m not scared of it. I’m curious about it. The way I’m curious about solar system and about the atoms and the DNA.” All those things which are in our collective consciousness, in our public discourse, which are no simpler than mathematical concepts.
Mathematical concepts are no more complicated than these concepts in physics and biology that are in the air, that are – that we are aware of. So I would like people to be aware of this, of these mathematical ideas. I would like them to be more and more aware of how mathematics invades our lives, how it’s controlling our lives. Be it through things we discussed earlier or through things like algorithms that we face when we go and buy a book on Amazon or rent a movie on Netflix. I mean in all of these instances we are presented with recommendations and things like that which are based on sophisticated algorithms. And I do believe that if we understand better how mathematics works, how mathematics enters our lives, we will be better equipped to deal with the challenges that, you know, this brave new world presents to us.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Dillon Fitton