Zen and the Art of Learning Math (Book Discussion)

I had a book club discussion with Scott Young on the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

It's a wonderful book, a mix of philosophy and narrative storytelling. The central thesis is that an ineffable sense of Quality (capital Q) underlies art and science/technology, and by following it, we can unlock joy, creativity, and technical excellence.

  • 00:00 - Book summary
  • 11:52 - Conversation with Kalid starts
  • 14:10 - The distinction between "classic" and "romantic" worldviews
  • 15:38 - On the historical significance of the book
  • 18:45 - Zen and the art of math?
  • 20:24 - Is "classical"/"romantic" wired in your brain?
  • 24:15 - Ghosts, knives and analysis
  • 28:20 - On "Copernican" revolutions and ghostbusting
  • 29:04 - Pointers and meta-knowledge
  • 30:11 - The analytical "knife"
  • 32:35 - Is our brain a knife by design?
  • 35:42 - Our brains are "radical simplification machines"
  • 37:14 - On the failure of formalisms
  • 38:59 - Godel, incompleteness and paradoxes in reason itself
  • 41:04 - Is math the most "true" thing we know?
  • 42:05 - Gumption traps and the practical value of the book
  • 45:32 - Peace of mind and digs on Japanese manufacturing?
  • 47:10 - Solutions to the monkey trap
  • 48:04 - Capital "Q" Quality
  • 50:13 - Is the metaphysics useful?
  • 51:12 - ...but it is true?
  • 52:19 - Tyler Cowen on agnosticism
  • 53:34 - Is quality fundamental or emergent?
  • 54:18 - Scott can't say the word "philosophizing"
  • 54:47 - We need to balance intuition and measurement
  • 56:34 - Final thoughts

My book notes are here

In terms of process, I read the paperback book, kept notes/highlights in the margins, transferred them a the Google doc, then summarized a few practical takeaways:

  • The distinction between Science and Art is a human one, the knife we pick. (“The universe can be divided into Bananas and Non-Bananas”). This may be the source of our biases and frustrations.

  • There exist “gumption traps” that can drain our enthusiasm (which is the source of real understanding, enjoyment, mastery).

  • The power of our a priori concepts (our mental models) which is what we deal with, not our sense data directly.

  • Writing, experience things directly. Writing about one side of one coin, the back of your thumb. It’s your experience now.

  • Work through things at a speed / pace consistent with your nature (walking up the mountain). To live only for some future goal is shallow.

The multi-step process of taking notes, transferring them, and summarizing them to myself was quite enjoyable, and I got much more from the text than I would have otherwise.

Overall, the book is a well-written, thoughtful meditation on merging technical and artistic quality within the human experience. This is the balance I'm striving to hit with the lessons on the site, finding ways to unify technical understanding with artistic intuition and the wonder of discovery (that Aha! moment).

It's an endless game to find a better way to explain difficult concepts, and the book reminds me to enjoy the journey for its own sake.

Join Scott's book club for updates and discussions on upcoming books. Thanks again to Scott for having me on -- I had a blast and hope to participate in many more. If you're looking for more excellent and thoughtful analyses on the learning process, check out ScottHYoung.com.

Other Posts In This Series

  1. Life Lessons After 10 Years of BetterExplained.com
  2. BetterExplained Podcast Interview with Developer Tea
  3. Interview with MetaLearn (How to Get Better at Math)
  4. Interview with Developer Tea
  5. Newton's Law of Gravity (Metalearn Podcast)
  6. Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity (MetaLearn Podcast)
  7. Zen and the Art of Learning Math (Book Discussion)
  8. Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman (Book Discussion)

Join 450k Monthly Readers

Enjoy the article? There's plenty more to help you build a lasting, intuitive understanding of math. Join the newsletter for bonus content and the latest updates.