Statistics professor Jeff Rosenthal explains: how is mathematics like making music?

December 13, 2019 by Research2Reality

Both math and music work within logical structures, but leave lots of room for creativity, according to this statistics professor.

Many people might think that math is such a logical field that it would have little in common with something as creative as music. But the way that mathematicians and musicians think is actually a lot alike, says Jeffrey Rosenthal, professor of statistics at the University of Toronto.

“Mathematics involves a certain sort of logical structure, so you certainly have to have a logical mind to see how things fit together. You can’t just go making things up,” explains Rosenthal.

“But on the other hand, what not everyone realizes is that to do research in mathematics also involves a form of creativity. It’s what I call creativity within structure. In fact, I also play some music, and a lot of math people play music, and it’s been pointed out that music also kind of has a structure: you can’t just play whatever you want, but it also has some creativity involved. So there’s creativity within the logical structure.”

Unlike the exercises most people remember from elementary school or high school, there is no textbook solution in mathematical research. There are still rules, but there are no prescribed steps to follow. So while there’s a lot of logic involved, there is also a lot of creativity involved in making something original, says Rosenthal.

At its core, mathematics is all about connections and relationships, and Rosenthal thinks about the problems he’s working on whenever he has the chance.

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