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Town Hall Seattle: Science Series

Town Hall’s Science series is dedicated to understanding the world around us. Whether we’re hearing from a legendary physicist or a UW graduate student, the Science series explores math, biology, chemistry, the environment, and so much more.

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Sep 17, 2019

Math, logic, and geometry may make our everyday life more quantifiable, but it takes a deliberate mind to apply these tools to truly comprehend the world around us. Luckily, Eugenia Cheng and Amir Alexander made their way to Town Hall for a math night double header to teach us how to see the world like they do. First, Cheng delivered a treatise on how to use logical (and illogical) thinking to navigate our chaotic modern world. Then, Alexander enlightened us on the 17th century French royalty’s love of geometry, and the ways it still shapes our lives. Read more about each event below!

In a world where fake news stories change election outcomes, it can be easy to wonder if rationality has become futile. To assuage our concerns and lead a bold defense of logic, mathematician Eugenia Cheng joined us on Town Hall’s stage to share insight from her book The Art of Logic in an Illogical World. Cheng threw a lifeline to thinkers drowning in the illogic of contemporary life, sharing her own experiences falling prey to emotion—why she is still afraid of flying and sometimes eats more cookies than she should. Cheng revealed the inner workings and limitations of logic, and explains why “alogic” approaches—for example, emotion—are vital to how we think and communicate. Cheng showed us how to use logic and alogic together to navigate a world awash in bigotry, mansplaining, and manipulative memes. Join Cheng on an insightful, practical, and hilarious journey to think more clearly and find a balance between logic and everything else.

Dr. Eugenia Cheng is a bestselling author, as well as Scientist In Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who strives to rid the world of “math phobia.” Cheng is the author of the popular math books How to Bake Pi and Beyond Infinity, and she writes the column Everyday Math for the Wall Street Journal.

One night in 1661, Nicolas Fouquet, a superintendent under Louis XIV, was arrested for a peculiar crime. He dared to construct a grand geometrical garden. In doing so, he violated an irrefutable hierarchy: that geometry, in its perfection, was a testament to divine right. The garden’s elegant, symmetrical designs were considered proofs of incontestable certainty, and thus the authority to rule—and thus reserved for royalty.

Award-winning historian Amir Alexander took Town Hall’s stage to delve into the French royalty’s love for this peculiar landscape design, and the numerous other ways geometry has impacted our society. He offered us insights from his book Proof! to trace uses of geometry throughout history—everything from shaping the way our cities are built to serving as a rationale for political structures. Alexander tracked the rediscovery of Euclidean geometry in fifteenth-century Italy and recounted the French royalty’s centuries-long love affair with geometrical gardening, which acted as a visual symbol of the king’s consolidation of power during a time of violence and upheaval, and which culminated with the gardens at Versailles. Join Alexander for the monumental story of the geometries that have been carved into our world, the beliefs they supported, and the ways they shape our lives to this day.

Amir Alexander is an author and academic who studies the interconnections between mathematics and its cultural and historical setting. Alexander teaches history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and he is the author of Infinitesimal, Geometrical Landscapes, and Duel at Dawn. His writing has appeared in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and his work has been featured in Nature and The Guardian, on NPR, and elsewhere.

Presented by Town Hall Seattle as part of the 2019 Homecoming Festival. Recorded live in the Forum on September 11, 2019.