Non-ridiculous things that sound ridiculous

New York Magazine this week features a dopey listicle, “The Ten Most Ridiculous-Sounding Math Classes Currently Offered at Liberal-Arts Colleges.” Many are not math courses at all, but literature courses studying the use and depiction of mathematics in novels and plays.  I approve.  Others are perfectly reasonable math courses, whose only sin seems to be that the course-catalog writer tried to make the class sound reasonably accessible:  “In particular, we will ask such questions as: How do you model the growth of a population of animals? How can you model the growth of a tree? How do sunflowers and seashells grow?”

This prompted Nathan Collins to tell me this great story (Gerald B. Folland, American Mathematical Monthly, Oct. 1998, page 780)

On April 9, 1975, Congressman Robert Michel brandished a
list of new NSF grants on the floor of the House of
Representatives and selected a few that he thought might
represent a waste of the taxpayers’ money. One of them
(on which I happened to be one of the investigators) was
called “Studies in Complex Analysis.” Michel’s comment
was, ” ‘Simple Analysis’ would, hopefully, be cheaper.” I
shudder to think of what might happen if certain members
of the current Congress discover that the NSF is supporting
research on perverse sheaves.”

It’s also reminiscent of the high placing of math books in the annual Oddest Book Title competition.  In my opinion, Kowalski was robbed.

6 thoughts on “Non-ridiculous things that sound ridiculous

  1. That’s definitely a lame article, with an even lamer picture, but I’m hardly surprised given this is New York Magazine.

    As a geometer, I’m cheered to learn that “Crocheting Adventures With Hyperbolic Planes” won the Diagram Prize this year, partially avenging Kowalski’s loss last year…

  2. Frank says:

    I think we need to further bolster the custom of referring to category theory as “abstract nonsense”. Someone should write a book “Basic Foundations of Abstract Nonsense” or the like, and graduate courses in the subject should proudly be advertised by math departments across the country. Just imagine the 2 a.m. dorm room conversations.

  3. Allen K. says:

    Others are perfectly reasonable math courses, whose only sin seems to be

    In their defenses, one would probably see cos too.

  4. SW says:

    The fifth class on the list (origami math) is actually a HCSSiM class, not a Hampshire College class anyway. (However, Tom does teach origami math as a college class at WNEC, and it’s a perfectly reasonable math class.)

  5. Deane says:

    Why does someone who doesn’t live in NYC even bother to look at New York Magazine? I

  6. Yiftach says:

    I think Lance Small once told me a similar story about a congressman getting upset about an NSF grant for studying groups that lie.

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