Education and “Intuition Pumps”

Professor Daniel Dennett of Tufts uses the word “intuition pumps” in discussing intuitive understanding and its tweaking.

Let’s do a simple example, avoiding as always “rocket science,” where the intricacies weigh you down in advance. We make a U-turn and go back by choice to elementary notions and examples.

Think of the basic statistics curve. It’s called the Bell Curve, the Gaussian, the Normal Curve.

The first name is sort of intuitive based on appearance unless of course it’s shifted or squeezed and then it’s less obvious. The second name must be based on either the discoverer or the “name-giver” or both, if the same person. The third is a bit vague.

Already one’s intuitions and hunches are not fool-proof.

The formula for the Bell Curve is:

\begin{equation} y = \frac{1}{\sqrt{2\pi}}e^{\frac{-x^2}{2}} \end{equation}

We immediately see the two key constants: π (pi) and e. These are: 22/7 and 2.71823 (base of natural logs).

The first captures something about circularity, the second continuous growth as in continuous compounding of interest.

You would not necessarily anticipate seeing these two “irrational numbers” (they “go on” forever) in a statistics graph. Does that mean your intuition is poor or untutored or does it mean that “mathworld” is surprising?

It’s far from obvious.

For openers, why should π (pi) be everywhere in math and physics?

Remember Euler’s identity: e + 1 = 0

That the two key integers (1 and 0) should relate to π (pi), e, and i (-1) is completely unexpected and exotic.

Our relationship to “mathworld” is quite enigmatic and this raises the question whether Professor Max Tegmark of MIT who proposes to explain “ultimate reality” through the “math fabric” of all reality might be combining undoubted brilliance with quixotism. We don’t know.