July 29th, 2011

Breaking the rules

 It is time to challenge certain assumptions that we have long believed as rules or truths.

Have you wondered how the track-size or gauge of modern trains came about? If you question it far back enough, you will find that British engineers settled on a particular size because the tools to make carriages for that size were easily available.

The tools were common as they had been designed to make carriage axles that could fit the ruts in British roads and had therefore, become a standard. The ruts in the British roads were made by Roman chariots that were built for two horses – almost 2,000 years ago. It is almost embarrassing to realise that the modern railroad gauge is made for the dimensions of horse-driven carriages and has remained unchanged for two millennia.

Just like the QWERTY keyboard in use by computers today, the original inventor of the typewriter had to, on purpose, slow down fast-fingered typists as quick typing jammed up the mechanical keys.

The most obvious solution was to jumble up the alphabets so that people would find it harder to type fast. Isn’t it silly that today, almost 140 years later, we are still using the same QWERTY keyboard and trying desperately to teach users to type faster?

Why do we still design planes with wings when we know that planes do not need wings to fly? Why do we design cars with wheels that can only move forwards and backwards but expect drivers to be able to “side-park”?

In most of the developing world, motorcycles are the only means of affordable transport. Why then are we still designing motorcycles for two people when we know that entire families should be accommodated?

We seem to be operating on certain assumptions and beliefs that we have taken on as rules or “truths” that cannot, or should not, be challenged.

Assumptions and rules become engrained in our belief system and masquerade as truths – which they rarely are. We must be able to separate these assumptions and rules from facts, by questioning each and every one that we have blindly taken as the truth.

Einstein had to do exactly that to come up with the theory of relativity. Everyone had assumed that time was absolute and no other scientist had even dreamt of violating this assumption. When questioned and examined critically, this “rule” broke down to reveal the true nature of time.

For centuries, man had been trying to create flying machines. Every inventor at that time was relying on the same tables of aeronautical data that had been compiled by an earlier pioneer in the field. The Wright brothers however, did not accept this data at face value and questioned its validity. They discovered that the data was based on assumptions – not facts. The rest is history.

There are many reasons why we should challenge rules and assumptions. The first is that they may have been correct at the time they were framed but may no longer apply today. The ancient Romans believed that man could not run one mile in less than four minutes. To prove it, they used to set lions on Christian prisoners to see if it could be done. None of the prisoners lived to tell the tale, thereby further confirming the “rule”.

Roger Bannister, who was not aware of this “rule”, set out to run a mile in less than four minutes and did so effortlessly. The strange thing is that after Bannister broke the “rule”, dozens of others achieved the same result within weeks. A mistaken assumption had become a rule, holding back progress.

The second reason is that an assumption or rule could be based on tradition and culture – what is ridiculous in one part of the world is considered a fundamental truth in another. A certain tribe in Africa finds facial scars and a bald head very attractive. If a young girl does not deliberately scar her face and shave her head bald, she will have a hard time finding a suitor. Some cultures find slim women highly unattractive – the bigger the woman, the more desirable she becomes. Assumptions may be local or regional – not universal.

The third reason is the famous herd mentality – it is easy to believe an erroneous idea if everyone else believes it too. Despite generations of historical experience to the contrary, we find it impossible to belief that the whole world can be wrong – even though it repeatedly is.

At one point in time, the whole world believed that the earth was flat. Later, it was universally accepted that our sun and the planets in the solar system revolved around the earth. However, the motions of the planets did not fit the rule. Astronomers therefore, created amazingly complicated rules to fit the assumption that the earth was the centre of the solar system. Nicolas Copernicus questioned this assumption and quickly found that it was mistaken rule which had been accepted as the truth. Fortunately, Copernicus died before his findings were published. Galileo Galelie too reached the same conclusion when he critically examined the incorrect assumption.

Unfortunately for Galelie however, the herd mentality at that time was so pervasive that he was tortured and imprisoned for the rest of his life. The only crime this brilliant Italian scientist, writer, inventor and professor of mathematics had committed was that he dared question an accepted rule. Thankfully, times have changed.

What assumptions have you made about your customers, market, competitors and products? How true are these assumptions – have you tested them recently? Innovators must break free of the shackles that hold back creative ideas. Rules and assumptions are prisons that keep us locked in on mistaken or downright false beliefs. Innovators have to examine all sacred cows – the more sacred the cow is, the greater the chance that it is either false or no longer applicable. This however, requires courage to question our deepest beliefs and convictions. If we are not even aware that we are prisoners of our own doing, how can we escape?

Datuk Dr Kamal Jit Singh is the CEO of Agensi Inovasi Malaysia (AIM). It is the vanguard for innovation in Malaysia. Established by the Government through an Act of Parliament, AIM will be the driving force behind Malaysia’s push towards establishing an innovation economy.

Source: The STAR Education Home Sunday July 24, 2011

ISSUES: Mathematics? No problem

 A professor of Mathematics is determined to make the subject more accessible, writes SHARIFAH ARFAH

IF there is a subject that students the world over dislike, it is likely to be Mathematics.

The love-hate relationship young people have with the lesson is clear from the number of “I Hate Maths pages” created on Facebook — there are at least 30.

One particular page received more than 8,000 “likes” garnering comments that range from “Maths is very difficult, I really hate it!” and “I hate Maths.... I wanna kill those authors...” to “Maths is just a gimmick that certain people use to call themselves intelligent”.

Professor of Mathematics Chandra Kant Raju sympathises with these students and believes they need not feel that Mathematics is a burden.

The Indian national blames the students’ struggle to understand the subject on the belief that “Mathematics (and Science) are universal but (this) originated from the West”.

“This idea is absurd. If Maths and Science are indeed universal, they would have sprung up the same everywhere,” says Raju, who recently presented the paper Decolonising Math and Science Education at the International Conference on Decolonising our Universities organised by Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Citizens International.

Raju, who has taught Mathematics for the last 30 years, traces the problem back to the Western philosophy of Mathematics which went through reinterpretation and falsification of history to suit the needs of Westerners.

“Western society was dominated by the church for more than 1,000 years and all knowledge had to be made theologically correct,” says the visiting professor at USM. For example, the Greeks believed that Mathematics incorporated eternal truths, angering the Christian priests at the time.

When the philosophy was eventually accepted during the Crusades, it was “reinterpreted” as soulless to align with the philosophy of the post-crusade Christian theology of reason.

History was also falsified — knowledge originating from the Arabs was attributed to the Greeks.

For example, in Toledo, Spain in the 12th century, the church had financed the mass translations of Arabic books and credited the Greeks with discovering the knowledge.

Raju’s research also showed that Calculus has its origins in India and was used for calculating trigonometric values. While the Europeans used it for navigation, the Indians used it to determine the size of the Earth, 1,000 years earlier than the Europeans. “The Europeans used it but didn’t truly understand it,” says Raju, further explaining his points.

Raju is aware that his views are controversial because the current Mathematics curriculum rooted in Western philosophy is widely accepted.

Yet the Telesio-Galilei Academy of Science Award he won in 2010 for pointing out and correcting a mistake in the theory of relativity (E=mc²) made famous by physicist Albert Einstein proves that Raju “knows his stuff”. “It depends on who you’re talking to. If whatever I say is false, prove it. I’m willing to have a public debate on this. Anything good should be accepted but we need to critically examine what we learn,” says the computer scientist and physicist.

Raju is always on the quest for making Mathematics more accessible.

Three years ago he devised a course, Calculus Without Limits, which was first implemented in 2009 at the Central University of Tibetan Studies in Sarnath, India.

He chose Calculus — the Mathematics that calculate the rate of change — as it is considered “the line dividing men and boys” in Mathematics.

The five-day course attempts to make Calculus easier to understand by treating it as a practical solution instead of “a metaphysical subject”.

Raju believes that the module also makes the application of Calculus in other subjects such as Physics simpler.

Last year, he tested it on four groups of USM students: those pursuing postgraduate Mathematics, undergraduate Pure Mathematics, undergraduate Applied Mathematics and undergraduate non-Mathematics programme (such as those who major in Media and Communications).

“The idea is that, by the end of the course, even non-Maths groups can do random problems from the Calculus tests,” says Raju.

There was a marked improvement in students’ results. All the groups achieved at least an 80 per cent pass rate in the final test.

Raju is happy with the results and views the module as his personal contribution towards “decolonising” the subject.

The success has spurred him on to compile teaching and learning materials on the course into a textbook and teaching manual.

The book Euclid & Jesus — an explanation of the facts and fallacies of Western-imposed Mathematics in layman’s terms — will be his 12th publication.

Raju’s dream is to see the project being taught in educational institutions but it remains to be seen when this will happen.

One of the obstacles is that the public has little say in curriculum development.

“Parents and students, and even scientists and engineers, are rarely consulted on what sort of Maths to teach. Decisions on the Maths curriculum are left solely to ‘experts’. But who are the experts? They were all trained in the Western module of Mathematics,” he says.

“Only after they have ‘unlearned’ what they know will they accept the new method,” he says.

Source: The NST Home Learning Curve Article ISSUES: Mathematics? No problem Friday, July 29, 2011