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Evil Spirits, Math Combine to Explore Knowledge

For some, the word “math” is enough to scare them away. However, when the words “evil spirits” and “mathematics” are used in the same course title, one might imagine a scene in a scary movie. 

This Halloween, students in Dr. Ryan Berndt’s, assistant professor of mathematical sciences, Freshmen Year Seminar (FYS) course, titled “Evil Spirits, Placebos, Equivalence Relations: Mathematics and Ways of Knowing,” will be exploring different kinds of knowledge using mathematics.

“We do not examine whether evil spirits are real, but we do look at them as explanations for unseen dangers,” Berndt said about the course. “My FYS is quite unique in that it uses mathematics to understand cultural knowledge and to judge modes of thinking.”

Berndt explains that there are two parallel ideas in his course. The first is based on the premise that mathematical reasoning and the ability to abstract ideas can help one think about culture. 

“Cultural particulars, like whom you consider your kin, are often examples of larger mathematical ideas,” he said. “For instance, kinship can be understood in terms of a topic from set theory called equivalence relations.”

The second idea seeks to help students judge the quality of different kinds of knowledge (magical vs. scientific, for example) using mathematics as a guide.

“I hope my students will understand the modes of knowing we study: magical, mathematical and scientific, can come to appreciate their functions and limitations,” he said. “In the process, they should learn not to disregard cultural knowledge because it is foreign to them, but instead, when appropriate, see it as an example of some larger abstraction.”