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Home / Opinion - Professor Heimbeck: A scholar to emulate (part 1)                                                           

Opinion - Professor Heimbeck: A scholar to emulate (part 1)                                                           

2021-11-10  Staff Reporter

Opinion - Professor Heimbeck: A scholar to emulate (part 1)                                                           
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Normally, it is customary to write a tribute in honour of someone who has passed on. I would like to deviate from this tradition a bit, by offering a tribute to a Namibian scholar who is still alive and well today. I don’t think it is unethical to offer a tribute to someone who is still alive. I believe it is an ideal virtue to honour people in their lifetime so that they may hear and see for themselves the influence they have brought upon the world. 

My encounter with Professor Günter Heimbeck began on the evening of the 8th of November 2012, at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). That night, Professor Heimbeck gave a public lecture on a geometry topic entitled: ‘The necessary and sufficient conditions for the existence of interior points of conic sections’. Naturally, I am a person who loves learning. As such, I was very excited to attend this lecture and listen to a distinguished scholar of mathematics. 

The lecture was very interesting. In high school, we normally deal with Euclidean geometry, but in this lecture, Professor Heimbeck talked about non-Euclidean geometries, touching on concepts such as affine geometry and projective geometry. At one point during the lecture, the professor posed a question: “How did Johannes Kepler find his laws of planetary motion without calculus and analytic geometry?” He went on developing the lecture around this question. The material was highly abstract and filled with geometric proofs. In Khomas High, I have always told my learners: “never lose hope in a math class.” On this particular night, I now found myself in a situation where I had to apply that advice myself as I tried to keep up with Professor Heimbeck. 

Thus, like a die-hard chess player who refused to resign without a checkmate, I remained vigilant and optimistic throughout the lecture, although I was hopelessly lost. The material was simply too advanced and abstract for a high school math teacher. I then placed my hope in the conclusion, hoping that a summary in the conclusion will surely make things clearer, but to no avail. The conclusion came and went, and I was still in the dark. I could still not clearly articulate these “necessary and sufficient conditions” for the existence of interior points in conic sections. During the questions-and-comments session at the end of the lecture, I was one of those few people who asked a question. My question to the Professor was: “What are the application areas of these concepts?” The Professor’s answer was disappointing. 

From what I remember, his answer basically conveyed the notion that “it is too early to tell.” He was just not sure where mathematics can be used in real life. It is as if Professor Heimbeck never prepared himself mentally for that kind of question in case it came up from the audience. I am a teacher myself, and as a teacher, when you prepare a lesson, you anticipate every possible question from the audience and prepare yourself mentally for such questions. I was therefore puzzled as to why an experienced professor of mathematics did not prepare himself to answer such a question. I went back home that evening feeling a bit disappointed. I remember thinking to myself: “how can someone know something so deep and not know where it can be used in real life?” Little did I know that there was actually nothing wrong with the professor’s answer. It was my question, which was inappropriate. It would take me three years to realize the inappropriateness of my question that night. 


The Geography of thought 

Nearly a period of more than three years passed after that public lecture, and as I continued with my research work at CARRIE, I came across a book by social psychologist Professor Richard Nisbett – The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently and why. Nisbett’s book forced me to re-visit the Heimbeck lecture once again. Nisbett asserts that the West (mostly Europe and wherever European influence spread) has inherited the intellectually legacy of the ancient Greeks, who loved knowledge for the sake of knowledge itself. “For the Greeks”, writes Nisbett, “even knowledge that did not seem practical was investigated.” (Nisbett, 2003:4). As I read more about the intellectual culture of the ancient Greeks, I began to understand why Professor Heimbeck did not prepare for a question on applications that night. I came to realize that Professor Heimbeck was not studying mathematics because it was practical and useful. He was a scholar of mathematics because he loved it. He was fascinated by its beauty, and that is why he came to share his concepts in a public lecture, even though he was still not sure where those concepts can be applied in the real world. This is the hallmark of great scholars: they investigate phenomena for the sake of curiosity in order to gain a deeper understanding of the world or their field. This was the culture of the ancient Greeks. 

Why am I sharing the story of my encounter with Professor Heimbeck? Because we are busy developing a new educational innovation in Namibia known as The Maths & Science Clinic System, and what we want to achieve with this system is to produce scholars in the lineage of Professor Heimbeck. In part 2 of this essay, I will share with the reader the insights I have received from Professor Heimbeck concerning the field of mathematics during an interview that I had with him. After the paradigm shift that I got from The Geography of Thought, I decided to track down Professor Heimbeck and interview him face-to-face. It was an honour to drink from the wisdom of Professor Heimbeck through this interview. He shared with me some powerful insights and I want to share those insights with you in Part 2. Watch this space for Part 2.       


*Salomo S. Mushinga is a mathematics teacher at Khomas High School in Windhoek, Founder of CARRIE and co-inventor of the Maths & Science Clinic System (with Ephraim Tutjavi of NYS). He writes in his personal capacity as a CARRIE researcher.

2021-11-10  Staff Reporter

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