Drinks Conversation

Last night, a friend and I were discussing the oft-hilarious results of non-science people talking about science: in particular, a newspaper article referring to the different sizes of infinity. “There are an infinite number of multiples of 3, and an infinite number of multiples of 9,” the article goes on to say, “but there are more multiples of 3.” My friend found this highly amusing.

At the time, I laughed along. We were at a party; it was drinks conversation. But the more I thought about it, the less shocking it seemed. The idea of countable and uncountable infinities is not exactly intuitive. The idea that there exists a one-to-one correspondence between the multiples of 3 and the multiples of 9, and somehow that means they’re the same size, is also not intuitive. There’s no reason to expect that someone without a math background would be able to get it right, just like there’s no reason to expect someone who’s never had sex to make love like a porn star (although there is reason to expect a newspaper to hire a competent fact-checker).

Yet people who are very knowledgeable in one area often forget that things that are obvious to them, concepts they may have internalized in third grade, are not so obvious to their peers. They may dismiss things they don’t know much about, like Roman emperors, or social niceties, as fluff.

It’s easy to be snobbish in a field like math, where the barriers to entry past a certain age are relatively high, and the communities are incestuous. In high school, I used to coach Mathcounts. I was recently watching some videos from the 2003 National Lightning Round and was blown away by the speed of competition. Kids were so well-versed, they were giving correct answers to questions that hadn’t even been posed yet. This speaks clearly to dedication and talent and mental faculty, but also to plain familiarity with the form of the questions. It’s the same for science in general. I can laugh at the statement, “there are more multiples of 3 than multiples of 9” because I’ve taken logic and set theory. It isn’t really socially advantageous, though, to look strangely at someone who doesn’t laugh. They are, after all, most of your dating pool.