Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Math in the Media - Teaching a Supreme...

Many common concepts and terms in mathematics are of general use outside of math. Think of adjectives like "tangental" and "functional". The mathematical definition and the non-mathematical meanings are usually quite similar.

Today in the Washington Post, Robert Blake writes of a recent exchange within the confines of a Supreme Court session. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy asked a question to University of Michigan law professor Richard D. Friedman. Friedman answered the question,

"but added that it was "entirely orthogonal" to the argument he was making in Briscoe v. Virginia.

Friedman attempted to move on, but Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stopped him.

"I'm sorry," Roberts said. "Entirely what?"

"Orthogonal," Friedman repeated, and then defined the word: "Right angle. Unrelated. Irrelevant."

"Oh," Roberts replied.

A nice answer, as almost every first-year student here at Hopkins in engineering or the natural sciences can attest. No dot-product needed. It goes on:

Friedman again tried to continue, but he had caught the interest of Justice Antonin Scalia, who considers himself the court's wordsmith. Scalia recently criticized a lawyer for using "choate" to mean the opposite of "inchoate," a word that has created a debate in the dictionary world.

"What was that adjective?" Scalia asked Monday. "I liked that."

"Orthogonal," Friedman said.

"Orthogonal," Roberts said.

"Orthogonal," Scalia said. "Ooh."

Friedman seemed to start to regret the whole thing, saying the use of the word was "a bit of professorship creeping in, I suppose," but Scalia was happy.

"I think we should use that in the opinion," he said.

"Or the dissent," added Roberts, who in this case was in rare disagreement with Scalia.

See what Hopkins Math can offer you? Something to teach even a Supreme Court Justice.

No comments: