Monthly Archives: January 2012

Math is Not the Problem

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(personalised and adapted from a brilliant, very profane blog on http://maddox.xmission.com/c.cgi?u=regular_site )

Every time I hear someone say “I’m bad at math,” I immediately think, no, that’s not it.  There are quite a few reasons people think they are bad at math. One of the most common difficulties is actually not following instructions. his shirt is birth control.

Take cooking for example, or successfully completing the procedures in laboratory experiments. I find both challenging, I think, because for whatever reasons I don’t follow recipes or lab instructions well enough.  Not being good at cooking isn’t some kind of badge of honour. It’s a race to the bottom, with some people one-upping each other about how inept they are at cooking. Odd, isn’t it?  I’m certainly not proud of this lack in myself.

Math is like cooking or lab experiments: just follow the recipe or protocol. Symbols look confusing? Can’t figure out how to solve a problem? Did you read the introduction to the chapter that tells you exactly how to solve this generic category of problems?

Math isn’t some voodoo that only smart people understand. It’s something that people understand on their path to enlightenment, and it’s about as straightforward as thinking gets. And when I say “math” here, I’m talking specifically about the only category of math that 99% of people know about: applied.

Theoretical mathematics, on the other hand, is effectively an arcane branch of knowledge, understood by very few.

Theoretical math is cool. Math theory involves solving problems like finding patterns in prime numbers, topology and thinking about the different kinds of infinity. And yes, there are different kinds of infinities. There are great books about them you might want to read.

Do you know about Pascal’s triangle? Or the Fibonacci sequence? How the square root of 2 was discovered? Do you know about the Pythagorean cult which discovered the “Pythagorean theorem”?

Or are you still preoccupied with questions like “when will I ever use this in life?”

First of all, you would have a very, very difficult time leading your life in such a way that you never have to do math.

It seems at times like math is the only discipline that has to put up with this, though of course people in other disciples probably have similar struggles. People who gladly learn art, music, literature and geography often rebel at math. They nod happily when learning what a haiku is, never complaining about never use this in their “life.” Do you write haikus? Well, I’m sure some of you do, but hopefully you get my point.

When it comes to math, it is a completely different story for too many people. Suddenly math-haters can predict the future and know that for the next 70 or so years of their life, with 100% certainty, that they will never use math and that they can tune out in math class and go back to doodling because they are too self-important to learn something that ancient people thought was important enough to pass down for them to learn. It’s far more important to practice drawing hearts and stars, right?

People didn’t invent this stuff because they were bored. They invented it to solve real-world problems. Problems that real people had to deal with before you were born, like building oil platforms, delivering the correct dosage of medicine and going to space. Not so you could play video games, although you wouldn’t be able to do that without math, either.

All higher forms of thinking come from neural connections built by solving the kinds of problems encountered in math. Why should you learn math? Because learning math isn’t about how much or how little you use it at your job. It’s about who you become.

Don’t like it? Well, it’s like this. People also don’t like to work, and if everyone took that attitude towards math and applied it towards work, we’d all be living in huts. I like computers, the Internet, and riding in elevators. Don’t think elevators are awesome? Take the stairs next time. In fact, without math you wouldn’t even have stairs…

(Thanks again to the person who maintains “The Best Page in the Universe”. Wow, that must be a really great page, considering all those amazing pages out there light-years away 🙂 )

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