Differential Equations as Terrorism

This week two colleagues sent me reports from MSN.COM and FOX NEWS about the same event. The latter offered a more succinct summary,

"An Ivy League professor says his flight was delayed when a fellow passenger mistook his scribbling on a math problem as a sign he might be a terrorist.

"American Airlines confirms that a woman expressed suspicions about University of Pennsylvania economics professor Guido Menzio.

"He was flying from Philadelphia to Syracuse on Thursday to give a talk at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. He was working on a differential equation, but said he was told the woman thought he might be a terrorist because of what he was writing."

We all know about math anxiety and the usual response by our seatmate on a flight when we tell them we are mathematicians. "I could never do math. Why, I can't even balance my checkbook or do a tip right in a restaurant." Paul Halmos, the distinguished mathematician, said, "When asked what I do in a plane situation I merely tell them I am in aluminum siding and the discussion ends." He was tired of the same old litany of fellow travelers bashing mathematics and bemoaning their skill level.

But this story was different. This was a case of written mathematics evoking fear of terrorism!

That made me think of what differential equations, even to those who have studied them, evokes in some folks and why.

In our discussions with students and former students over many years that have “had to” study differential equations there is not so much fear as bad memories of grinding out long and tedious solutions, of tricks, of special cases, and of no motivation. Even when there is an attempt at motivation it is something like, “Just wait. You will use this in the future.”  That does not cut it with the modern day student, in general. Show them now, as they are studying why differential equations are so useful and so powerful in modeling the real world. And by the way leave the tedium of long calculations to compute algebra systems like Maple, Mathematics, SAGE, etc. Give our students freedom from ignorance and tyranny – sounds almost political, but it is true.

Let’s stop differential equation from being a tool of terror!  Let’s motivate and justify the study of differential equations by showing the student “public” the power they have to model reality and help folks move ahead, not cower in fear and live with scars.


  1. differential equations
  2. modeling
  3. terror

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