Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Story of Love and the Riemann Integral

One of the most common questions in my medical school interviews was, "You majored in math?  Why math?"

I liked this question, because it kept the interviewers from asking more pointed questions like, "Why haven't you done more shadowing/volunteering/traveling?!?",  "Why did you get a B in History?!?", and questions of that ilk.

I also liked it because it was easy to answer: "They say to major in something you like and are good at.  For me, that's math.  I enjoy it, and one of the nice parts of being premed is that you can major in whatever you want."

That's true, and it's short enough for an interview.

But the deeper answer is something like this.

I have loved math for a very long time, often entranced by its beauty.  But when I was in high school, I watched a few surgeries.  Something about that experience just clicked, and suddenly, I was premed.

But I wasn't completely sure I was ready to give up my first love.  Calculus has such an elegant, simple beauty.  Throughout the first two years or so, I occasionally wondered if I was making the wrong decision.

That's really why I majored in math: it was a diagnostic, and a safeguard.  If I still loved math after three years or so, I could still be well on my way to graduate school, research, and professorship.

This continued off-and-on until my junior year, when I took Math 409 Honors with the amazing Dr. Harold Boas.  Math 409 is Advanced Calculus I, and at my school, it is a legendary class.  You begin with questions like, "Are there more real numbers than natural numbers?  How many more are there?  How do we know?"
(The answers: Yes!  Infinitely many more.  Cantor's Diagonalisation Argument.)
From there, you keep moving upwards and define more and more, and eventually we derived the notion of a limit, and then a derivative, from first principles.  From there, we moved on to the beautiful, elegant creature that is a Riemann integral.

Here, the professor took a few minutes to tell us a little about Riemann.

Bernhard Riemann was a mathematical prodigy even as a child.  Through his career, he defined the Riemann integral and proposed the famous, unsolved Riemann hypothesis.
He wrote On the hypotheses which underlie geometry, one of the most important works ever on geometry.  This work had major implications for Einstein's theories, and the implications of Riemann's work are still being investigated today.  In addition to this, Riemann made major contributions to analysis, calculus, and differential geometry.
Then Dr. Boas told us how Bernhard Riemann died at age 39 of tuberculosis.

That was the moment when I knew that I wanted to be a physician more than anything else in the world.

That's the story of how I majored in math because I love it, and left it behind because I love something else more.

Thanks be to God.


  1. I love finding other people who love math. I've always been most interested in topology (Flatland is a major love of mine) but I feel contractually obligated to recommend Godel,Escher, Bach. Also, I have to recommend Thomas Stoppard's math heavy play Arcadia.

  2. I love Flatland! I first heard about it in Childcraft, and read it a few years later. I loved the story and how accessible it was, even to a ten-year-old.

    I'm excited to find another math person; usually the response is more like, "You're a math major? Ewwwww..."

    I have not read Godel, Escher, Bach. It has been recommended to me many times, but yours is just the nudge I needed; I will see if the library has it. I had not heard of Arcadia, but it sounds intriguing.

    Perhaps my favorite math book is The Math Gene, by Keith Devlin. He lays out a compelling case for how our brains evolved mathematical thought, but he talks about a lot of math in the process. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Good to hear from you! I've followed your blog a while, and have always been impressed.