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CREATIVITY OF MATHEMATICIANS

Hefei Normal University, China

Zhangxiaogui @ gmail.com

ABSTRACT

It is important to the mathematics philosophy and the mathematics education to research

mathematicians mathematical creativity process. Hadamards mathematical creativity

psychology does not tell us what happens in mathematicians brains when they are

creating mathematics. In this article, the author puts forward that mathematicians

thinking experience the process that from abstract to concrete and then from concrete to

abstract when they create mathematics, and analyzes deeply the two-stage process.

Keywords: mathematician; mathematical creativity; thinking; graphics; operation;

transformation

Exploring mathematicians mathematical creativity has great significance to bath the

mathematics philosophy and the mathematics education, especially the importance of the latter

is particularly prominent because of stressing of cultivating students' creative ability in todays

international mathematics education. But so far, this kind of study is too rare. Maybe, the reasons

have two. The first is that mathematicians just will to talk their research results but not their

creativity process, the second is that mathematics laymen feel that mathematicians and their

creativity too esoteric to dare to explore.

About sixty years ago, Hadamard, a French mathematician, put forward his famous

four-stage

theory

of

mathematical

creativity

that

is

preparation-incubation-illumination-verification in his work An essay on the psychology of

invention in the mathematical field, which pioneered the research of mathematicians

mathematical creativity (Hadamard, 1945). Although Hadamards mathematical creativity theory

has produced an effect on the research of mathematical creativity field greatly, its shortage is

obvious from todays views. Firstly, Hadamard ignores the social and cultural factors in

mathematicians mathematical creativity. In fact, mathematicians do not live and work in empty

space, the social and cultural environment exerts some influence on mathematicians

mathematical creativity. Secondly, because of being effected by the Gestalt psychology which was

prevalent in his time, Hadamard attributes the mathematicians mathematical creativity to

mathematicians epiphany; it cannot explain clearly what happen in the process of

mathematicians mathematical creativity, and make people who are outside mathematics field

some researchers also tried to explore mathematicians mathematical creativity, but

unfortunately, they have not been able to surpass Hadamards theory really (zhang, 2010). In the

paper Thinking about the Mathematics Creativity from Social Views, the author explores

mathematicians mathematical creativity from the social perspectives, puts forward six-stage

mathematical

creativity

theory

which

is

problem-preparation-incubation-illumination-verification-approving (ibid). Authors work made

up the shortage of the Hadamards mathematical creativity partly, but it still does not show

clearly what happens in the mathematicians brains when they are thinking mathematics. In this

article, the author hopes to explain mathematicians thinking activities in the process of their

mathematical creativity. It is well known that humans epistemological activities have two basic

ways which are from abstract to concrete and from concrete to abstract. Accord to the following

analysis, we can find that mathematicians thinking activities experience the process of being

from abstract to concrete and then from concrete to abstract. This process shows that

mathematicians mathematical creativity is not mysterious, and it is accord with humans

epistemological ways. Obviously, mathematicians mathematical creativity begins from posing

conjecture. Posing mathematical conjecture is very complex and involves with a lot of

mathematical thinking activities, but we begin our analysis from mathematicians facing a

mathematics conjecture in this paper.

From abstract to concrete

Mathematics is created by the mathematicians, and mathematicians mathematical

creativity is the result of their thinking which happens in their brains, simply speaking,

mathematics is the result of mathematicians thinking. There is a question which ought to be

answered. This question is that what is the manifestation of the mathematics object in his/her

brain when the mathematician is creating mathematics or thinking mathematics? It seems an

individualized question, but there is quite same answer, which is that the object of mathematical

thinking presents itself as the form of graphics in the mathematicians brain. To most

mathematicians, it is true. Many mathematicians descriptions of their mathematical creativity

and some researchers investigations to mathematicians mathematical creativity can obtain such

conclusion. When talking about mathematical creativity himself, Hadamard said: I insist that

words are totally absent from my mind when I really think...even after reading or hearing a

question, every word disappears the very moment that I am beginning to think it over(Devlin,

2008). Einstein also wrote: Words and language, whether written or spoken, do not seem to play

any part in my thought processes. The psychological entities that serve as building blocks for my

thought are certain signs or images, more or less clear, that I can reproduce and recombine at

will(ibid). Hadamard and Einstein represent past mathematicians, then, how do mathematicians

today think when they create mathematics? In a recent survey, Burton found that more than half

of the mathematicians surveyed (66%) believe their thinking objects are graphics when they

create mathematics (Burton, 2001). So, for most mathematicians, their thinking objects are

graphics when they create mathematics. That is to say, mathematicians thinking is thinking to

graphics. In Hadamards mathematical creativity four-stage model, when mathematicians enter

the incubation stage, they begin to think to graphics. A further issue is that where do the graphics

A mathematical conjecture is an abstract proposition which is constituted by the

mathematical language, but the graphics in the mathematician brain is concrete. The abstract

proposition and concrete graphics are completely different in form. Obviously, mathematicians

must transform the abstract proposition to the concrete graphics. How do mathematicians make

the transformation? This process is so complex and individualized that the author cannot analyze

in deeper lever what happens in the mathematicians brain. To be sure, this complex process

involves mainly the non-logic thinking which plays a key role; and the logic thinking plays a minor

role which even can be ignored in this process. Peirce, an American mathematician and

philosopher, called the graphics as diagram. He pointed that there are two kinds of diagrams

which are geometric diagram and algebraic diagram. The geometric diagram is constituted by

geometric lines and the algebraic diagram by letters and other algebraic symbols. To the diagram,

Peirce said popularly: with ordinary persons this is always a visual image, or mixed visual and

muscular (Hull, 1994).

There is another question which must be answered. Why do mathematicians want to

transform the abstract proposition to the concrete graphics rather than other forms? The theory

of functional asymmetry in the human brain thinks that the functions of left and right

hemisphere are different. The left hemisphere is usually connected with logical thinking, whereas

the right hemisphere mainly with non-logical thinking. Several investigations show that the two

cerebral hemispheres process stimuli in different ways. The left hemisphere processes stimuli

sequentially, whereas the right hemisphere is specialized in parallel processing (Pehkonen, 1997).

Obviously, the left hemisphere is better suited for arithmetic, solving procedural mathematics

exercises, and analytic deduction in mathematics education, whereas the right hemisphere is

better in intuitions, imagination, and solving non-procedural mathematics problems.

From the above theory, the mathematical creativity mainly happens in the mathematicians

right hemisphere, which is better suited for non-logical thinking. In the right hemisphere, the

mathematician can make creative thinking such as imagination and intuition when he/she

transforms an abstract proposition to the concrete graphics. We can say that transforming an

abstract proposition to the concrete graphics is the mathematicians inevitable choice.

(Kolmogorov), a famous mathematician of the former Soviet Union, said: if it is

possible,

mathematician

always

tries

to

make

their

problem

geometric

visualization geometric imagination, or as ordinary people talking about the geometric

intuition, is great significance to almost all mathematical research branch even the most abstract

work (Shao, 1996). It seems that thinks that transforming an abstract proposition

to the concrete graphics is mathematicians preference. According to above analysis,

transforming an abstract proposition to the concrete graphics is the function of mathematicians

brain rather than their preference.

After having finished the transformation, the mathematician faces the concrete graphics rather

than the abstract proposition. Because of facing the concrete graphics, the mathematician begins

to manipulate the graphics. It is very clear that the mathematicians spatial imagination plays a

key role in this stage. Problem-solving means to set relation between the known conditions and

the results which are needed, so, the aim of manipulating graphics is to convert the initial

graphics which meets the conditions to the finial graphics which is consistent with the result. As

soon as the relations linked, the graphics manipulating finished. At moment, the problem is

Mathematician Devlin did a very vivid description to operating graphics (Devlin, 2008). He

compared mathematics problem solving to decorating a new house. When a person goes in a

new house where the disorganized furniture is cumulated, he is not familiar with the houses

layout. He wants to put every piece of furniture to the appropriate location in the house. In order

to put the every piece of furniture to the most appropriate location, he needs to be well

acquainted with the houses layout, every piece of furnitures function and its size. After trying

many times, he ultimately arranges all furniture in their most appropriate location. Obviously,

more furniture and the houses layout more complex, more difficult he/she arranges. In this

metaphor, the knowledge-masses which are used to solve problem are compared to furniture.

Initially, these knowledge-masses are chaotic. The mathematician tries to operate these

knowledge-masses, make them linking the problems results. After trying many times, the

problem is solved eventually.

Peirce explained clearly the transformation from an abstract mathematical conjecture to the

diagram and how the mathematician operates the diagram. Peirce not only showed what is

thinking object in mathematicians brain, but also explained how the mathematician thinks.

Peirce proposed that mathematician transforms a conjecture which is purely mathematical to the

diagram in his/her brain by imagination. Then, he/she observes, analyzes and experiments to the

diagram in his/her brain still by imagination; the experimental operation to the diagram includes

adding some ingredients such as lines and changing the shape. Mathematicians experimental

operation in the brain is similar with natural scientists laboratory experimental operation. The

differences are that the former happens in the mathematicians brain and the latter in the

scientists laboratory, the formers experimental object is diagram and the latters physical object.

Peirce thought that both are same in essence. Peirce fully affirmed the importance of

experimental access to the truth; he never considered human beings have the ability to get the

truth with no help from the experiment and only by virtue of inner contemplation. Peirce

believed that all human knowledge begins from the experiment, and the experiment includes the

experiments conducted by the individual in mind. The experimental process will be accompanied

by a series of surprise, which is directly perceived rather than reasoning. Mathematicians

experiment to the diagram in the brain leads to new observations, which, as Peirce said, makes

our finding the unnoticed and hidden relations between the various parts "(Hull, 1994).

Mathematician takes a variety of ways to carry out experiments on the diagram, until he sees the

results of an experiment solving the problem or confirming the hypothesis.

Operating the graphics is not smooth. In the mathematics history, it was not uncommon to find

a mathematician who spent many years even his whole life but failed to solve a mathematics

problem. To most mathematicians, they will put the problems which cannot be solved for a while

aside, and begin to solve a new problem. So, they always face a few of problems at the same time.

In other words, mathematician has a few of problems in his/her brain to be solved at any time. In

these problems, there is a problem which be solved by the mathematician consciously, and the

others are put aside. We can call the former the explicit problem and the latter the implicit

problems. The explicit problem and the implicit ones are alternate. The mathematician always

has an explicit problem in any time.

In the mathematics history, it is easy to find that a mathematician solved a problem suddenly

when he /she was doing something which maybe is no correlation with the mathematics problem.

For example, Hamilton discovered the quaternions suddenly when he was walking alone the

Royal Canal in Dublin on 16 October in 1843, and Poincare got the ideas of solving the Fuchsian

functions transformation methods when he was stepping in the car. The mathematician sudden

problem solving is called epiphany by Hadamard. Hadamard made two Hypotheses to explain

mathematicians epiphany. One is rest-hypothesis and the other is forgotten- hypothesis

(Hadamard, 1945). In the rest-hypothesis, the mathematicians brain is in a new state when a

mathematics problem which cannot be solved temporarily is put aside by him/her, the new brain

state of the mathematician is conducive to the epiphany; and in the forgotten-hypothesis, if a

mathematicians brain gets rid of the wrong load, it will solve the problem in an open thinking.

Krutetskii, a former Soviet Union psychologist, thought that the epiphany is the result of a

persons experience, knowledge and thinking hard, no some foundations and early efforts no

epiphany. It seems that the views of Hadamard and Krutetskii are reasonable, but they cannot

explain what happens in the mathematicians brain when a mathematician is thinking.

The modern brain science thinks that the human brain contains about 100 billion neurons, and

each neuron connects directly with the other 1000 to 100,000 neurons, they constitute a

complex neural network which ability of memory and process information is huge (Scott, 2000).

Comparing with computer, the human brain is more complex and finer. The computer can do the

foreground processing and the background processing simultaneously. So, human brain has the

function of the foreground processing and the background processing surely. In the

mathematicians creativity, the explicit problem is similar with the task of foreground processing,

and the implicit problems are similar with the tasks of background processing (zhang, 2010).

Although the mathematician puts a problem aside consciously because of he/she cannot solve it

for a while, the brain doesnt stop think it and processes it background. Some external stimuli

may lead certain neurons activities and neural pathways unblocked, some implicit problem is

solved suddenly, and that is the epiphany.

From concrete to abstract

Operating the graphics consciously and unconsciously in mind, the mathematician connects the

conditions and conclusions, which mean that he/she solves the problem in the brain. Solving the

problem in the mathematician brain is not equal to solve the problem really. Since the aim of

mathematics problem solving is to promote the development of mathematics and help to

understand the real world, so, the results of problem solving need to be recognized and shared

by other members of the mathematical community.

To this end, mathematician needs to write the research paper which describes how the

problem is solved. After writing, he/she sends the paper to some mathematics journal. If he/she

is luck, the paper will be published in the journal and the problem solving becomes a part of

mathematics knowledge. By this time, the value of the mathematicians creativity achieves really.

In writing paper, what the mathematician firstly needs to do is the transformation from the

concrete graphic in the brain to the abstract mathematics language. Of course, when the

mathematician writes the paper, he/she uses the standard mathematical language to describe

the logical reasoning. This is not question to any mathematician. The real question is how to

transform from the concrete graphics to the mathematics reasoning in the abstract mathematical

When a mathematician thinks mathematics problem in his/her brain, he/she mainly uses the

non-logical methods; but when writing the results on the paper, he/she uses the logical reasoning

methods. The non-logical methods are non-linear and the logical language is linear. So,

mathematician needs to do a rather difficult task to transform the thinking results to the abstract

mathematics language. It is not what you think is what you get. In June 1993, Wiles proved the

Fermats last theory, but the experts found some loopholes in the paper. In fact, Wiles has

checked the paper many times by himself. He spent more than a year, until September 1994,

satisfactorily proved the theorem. The loopholes in Wiles paper are caused of the

transformation from the concrete graphic operation to the concrete mathematics language. As a

mathematics teacher, I am told by my students sometimes, I have thought the results out really,

but when I want to write it on the paper I often cannot write right. The students cannot write

the results on the papers because of the transformations. Of course, students transformations

are quite different with mathematicians.

Mathematician mathematics creativity is a complex process. In laymans eyes, the

mathematics creativity is mysterious; Hadamards epiphany increases the mystery of

mathematics creativity in laymans eyes. The above analysis explains the process of

mathematicians thinking when he/she is in the mathematics creativity. This process begins from

the abstract mathematics conjecture to the concrete graphics. Mathematics thinking is the

mathematicians operation to the graphics in his/her brain. After finishing the graphics operation,

the mathematician needs to transform the concrete graphic operation to the abstract

mathematics proof. The whole process of mathematicians mathematics creativity can be

expressed by the following flow chart.

Abstract

mathematics

conjecture

Concrete

graphic

Abstract

mathematics

proof

Operating

the graphic

References:

Burton. L.. Research Mathematicians as Learnersand what mathematics education can learn

from them. British Educational Research Journal, 27(5), 2001.589-599.

Devlin. K.. A Mathematician Reflects on the Useful and Reliable Illusion of Reality in Mathematics.

Erkenntnis (2008) 68:359379.

Hadamard, Jacques (1954). An essay on the psychology of invention in the mathematical field.

New York: Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-20107-4.

Hull. K.. Why Hanker after Logic? Mathematical Imagination, Creativity and Perception in Peirce's

Systematic Philosophy. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 30(2) ,Spring, 1994, p.

271-295.

Pehkonen, E. (1997). The State-of-Art in Mathematical Creativity. ZDM, 29(3), 63-67.

Scott, A. (2000). How Smart is a Neuron? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7, No. 5, 2000, pp.

7075.

Shao Guang-hua (1996). Space imagination and geometry instruction. Curriculum; Teaching

Material and Method, 07.

Sriraman, B., Goodchild, S.. Relatively and philosophically E[superscript a]rnest: festschrift in

honor of Paul Ernest's 65th birthday[J]. IAP, 2009, 57-76.

Sriraman, B (2010). thinking to mathematicians mathematics creativity. Studies in Dialectics of

Nature, 7, 85-88.

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