Making Mathematics and Pasta Page 2As it happens, Jim's metaphor places two of my passions, mathematics and food,in close juxtaposition. And as it happens, the day that I was preparing Jim'spaper for discussion I went to the market with some vague ideas about what Iwas going to make for dinner – a pasta concoction of some sort, most likely usinggoat cheese as an ingredient – and I had come home to invent a new (for me atleast) goat cheese ravioli dish. Thinking about the issues raised in Jim's paper, Idecided to explore the parallels. Are there ways in which my understanding of cooking (and specifically, of making pasta) are akin to my understanding of mathematics; are there ways in which the learning and creative processes in bothare akin? If the parallels exist, do they merely represent facile analogies or isthere more than superficial substance to them? And if there is substance, whatare the implications? This paper is the result of the resulting ruminations. If nothing else, the reader will emerge from it with the recipes for two pretty goodpasta dishes.
Parallel 1: The development of Skill; Affordances.
It is no accident, I think, that a great deal of elementary mathematics is referredto as cookbook mathematics – even supposedly advanced mathematics such asmax-min problems in calculus, where one follows algorithmic or essentiallyalgorithmic procedures to solve problems. In school mathematics the analogy iseven more direct: one learns step-by-step procedures for basic algorithms like base-10 subtraction. Following the procedures, like following a simple recipe,then guarantees results.
But over time, cooks forsake the recipes – or at least they forsake following themslavishly – and they come to work with the materials themselves. I think there isa meaningful mathematical analogy. Let me start with the pasta, and then turnto the mathematics. In the case of making pasta, my own history is a case studyof "learning to read the properties of the materials at hand," or, in currentcognitive jargon, learning to perceive the affordances offered by the materials.
Well, maybe -- there is more certainty in mathematics recipes than in cooking, asanyone who has tried baking bread (for example) by following a recipe will tellyou.