Saturday, May 7, 2016

Richard Dedekind and Professor Leonard

Once I put a schedule in black and white, it’s hard for me to change it. That’s one of the main reasons I’ve done so well keeping up with my plan over the last nine-and-a-half years. But I have to change something here in the beginning of May. I have hard copies of Shelby Foote, and the volumes are huge. So I won’t be reading about the Civil War during my walks this month. And I sure can’t bring Aquinas with me on a walk if I want to take anything like coherent notes on the Summa. So I reached ahead in time and retrieved Richard Dedekind’s Essays on the Theory of Numbers, which I have on the Kindle.

I got the tip to read Dedekind from Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. Adler points out that many of the Great Books of science and math are easy to understand since they weren’t directed to experts: Lavoisier discovered oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen, so he couldn’t very well write to people who knew all about them! Still, I wondered what I was in for, and I took a sneak peek a few weeks ago. The first few pages looked like clear sailing; yep, I would just breeze through the last year of my decade-long plan.

Yesterday, I set out for my morning walk, tablet in hand and picked up Dedekind where I had left off. Wouldn’t you know it? It got hard on the very next page. Now what do I do? How do I follow Dedkind’s arguments, especially while I’m walking? Or do I follow them at all? Maybe part of what I learn is that I can’t follow his proofs. I understand his points, and I try to tell myself that I’ll only retain the main ideas anyway, not the proofs. Still, I remember with awe that beautiful moment when I first understood in one unified vision Euclid’s complex proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. (I later found that many simpler proofs exist!)

And I’m spoiled. I’ve been watching Professor Leonard’s videos on calculus lately, and I’m actually learning the stuff! His step-by-step explanations, clear language, multiple examples, elegant pictures, and oft-repeated fundamentals make it very easy to understand. Yes, it helps that I remember high-school algebra and the basics of trigonometry pretty well. But then those memories don’t help me with Dedekind. Maybe if Professor Leonard would draw just a couple of elegant pictures to go with the book!

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