Assistant Professor Stefan H. van Zwam picked up a piece of chalk and approached the blackboard. “I am going to use ‘alpha’ instead of ‘y’ for reasons that will become clear very soon.”
These reasons never became clear to me.
The other students picked up their pencils (a few confident ones lifted their pens) and began to copy the equation Stefan was scribbling on the board. I too attempted to take down this equation for posterity, but quickly gave up. Finding Greek letters on a laptop keyboard is taxing work.
I am not really sure what I thought I would get out of “Theory of Games,” but, naively, I assumed there would be less math and more games. As an art history major, I thought it might be interesting to see what I could learn from sitting in on a course for which I was completely unprepared. As Stefan explained something called the Bondareva-Shapely Theorem, I realized that I could not possibly learn an applicable math skill in this fifty-minute class, and I might as well try to glean some meaning by liberally repurposing the professor’s teachings and translating them into friendly advice.
Maintain a sense of balance
I noticed that Stefan talked quite a bit about balancing things. Before you find an optimal outcome, you must first find if your equation is balanced (or something like that). I pictured Stefan looking into his closet that morning. He selects a pair of jeans and then couples it with a chambray shirt. He knows the jean on jean would create a balanced, uniform look, but is it optimal? (I would say yes. He looked fashionable in a 1990s Gap ad kind of way.) Of course, the importance of balance goes beyond math equations and clothing aesthetics—without it, we wouldn’t be able maintain mental stability or practice yoga.
Be efficient and analytical
Stefan then took on the perspective of his mathematical equation and said, “In order to be in the core, I need to restrict myself, meaning I need to be efficient.” This was another fine comment on self-comportment. One must not only maintain balance in one’s life, but also exercise restraint and efficiency. At this point, I decided to Google Stefan to see if his Internet persona could shed any light on his treatment and presentation of mathematics. His extensive CV indicated, “I am a combinatorialist. I focus on matroid theory, in particular structural and algorithmic aspects of matroids representable over finite fields.” I took from this that Stefan is a really smart guy who knows a lot about algorithms.
Algorithms are made to automate reason and make calculations easier. Stefan knows that you have to be organized and analytical to find a solution to your problems. Maybe we all should take a step back from our predicaments and say, “If I were an algorithm, how would I organize my thoughts?” Undoubtedly, such an outlook would lead to a healthier, more responsible robot population.
99 Problems but can’t solve the One
Stefan also brought up the concept of dual problems. He explained, “I have taken this primal problem and rewritten it as a dual problem.” Now, in the context of solving a math problem, this was probably a good thing, but in the context of everyday life, this is a sad truth. I would define a primal problem as one of those big questions I ask myself like, “What will I do with my life?” or “Is there a heaven, and if so, does it have a Say Cheez?” I “rewrite” these bigger problems as smaller dual problems. Instead of worrying about life and death, I worry that I have forgotten to do a Blackboard post or that the Holder bedbugs will migrate into my sheets. These worries are somewhat fleeting and unfounded, but I focus on them, hoping that they will one day lead to the answers to the bigger questions.
Love your job
Stefan casually spoke of math as if it were a close friend or a part of his family. In describing the next step of solving a problem, he said, “We must turn to our good old friend linear programming.” Linear programming is not a good friend of mine; we have not even been properly introduced. But it was nice to think that Stefan felt so comfortable with his subject of study that he addressed it as a comforting friend.
I wondered if the other students in the class felt such a close connection with the world of numbers. I looked at the small gathering of sweatshirted individuals. A few nodded, scribbling in their notebooks. One student was on the verge of sleep, his head swaying and his eyelids fluttering. He certainly seemed comfortable in this environment, but perhaps not actively engaged with the subject. Another student sitting by himself in the back row had been texting since class began. He was engaging in some sort of relationship, but my guess is that it was not relevant to mathematics. I think Stefan was trying to tell his irreverent students that it is important to maintain a healthy relationship with your studies, or else your thesis might be filled with unconscious hostilities towards your former academic love.
While I didn’t understand any part of this class that pertained to actual game theory, I managed to leave the room feeling as though I had learned some valuable lessons. Above all, I learned that I should not be a mathematics major. However, even if I will never be able to solve the world’s quantitative problems or count cards in a casino, I have learned from Stefan that all academic subjects (and life pursuits) require discipline, devotion, and a willingness to explore new perspectives.