Gwnewch y pethau bychain

Why Math?

There’s been a thread on rec.arts.comics.strips about the value of maths education, and how much of the things you learn in maths class are really useful later in life. Brian Fies contributed a personal essay so profound I asked him for permission to reproduce it here.

I like doing square and cube roots on a slide rule–you don’t even have to
slide anything, just read the line on the proper log scale. That’s
probably one of the few instances where a slide rule remains easier to use
than a calculator (though as Mark says, not as accurate), and I think it
instills a good subconscious feel for what logarithms are all about.

To the original question of Why Bother Learning Math: Y’know, I really do
find myself using math up through at least the high school level very
regularly. Calculating square footages of flooring, what volume of topsoil I
need to cover a yard, what length of PVC pipe to buy, how many bookshelves
to build. Figuring averages, tips, gas mileage, food unit pricing. Once in a
while I bust out the Pythagorean Theorem or the volume of a sphere. It
actually is part of the fabric of my life that makes me a better consumer,
homeowner and citizen.

What I didn’t really get until I hit calculus in college is that math (and
physics) are more valuable to me philosophically than as nuts-and-bolts
problem solvers. There quickly comes a point where equations stop being
about turning a crank to find “the answer” then modeling how an idea or
physical phenomenon works. I don’t think I actually solved a single
calculation or equation for at least my last two years of university study.
For example, you don’t take Schrodinger’s wave equation, put in some
numbers, and get an answer of “42.” Rather, you take that equation and ask,
“What does it tell me about how a hydrogen atom might act?” and then go see
if the atom does that.

Even though I don’t use that level of math or even remember how to do it
anymore, I don’t consider that education a waste. It changed the way I look
at the universe and trained my brain in ways that have been beneficial to
me. One example: calculating hundreds of integrals from zero to infinity
gave me the habit of looking at the extreme possible outcomes of situations:
what would happen if everybody did something; what would happen if nobody
did it? What if the opposite action were taken (i.e., integrating from
negative infinity to zero or positive infinity)? What if that awful thing
done by the Democrats had been done by the Republicans (or vice versa)? What
if a policy that applies to black people were applied to whites? Or women to
men? Would I feel differently about it? Should I?

Plugging in zero and infinity to see what happens is a helpful way to
analyze a math problem and I find it a helpful way to analyze life, as well.

So, if you ever wondered to yourself, “why do I need to learn this stuff anyway”, that’s why.


Links and Notes




  1. re: Why Math?

    Thanks for posting this. After all those years of struggling through high school math, things make a little more sense.

  2. I like his answer.

    For me, well, it’s a combination of “I’m allowed to learn; that’s a privilege” and “the universe is fascinating; I want to know how it works”.

    • To be sure, you could probably right a similar essay on the subject of “Why Literature?” or “Why Art?” or “Why “.

      Sometimes, the metalessons are the important bits…

  3. That’s pretty and all, but nothing will ever really make up for the time and energy I wasted studying for the math GRE. 😛

  4. Thank you for posting this.

    There’s a great sequence in MOM’S CANCER explaining how a tumor shrinking from 5 inches to 4 inches (or whatever unit it was) means halving in size. Counter-intuitive, no?

    Which I mention because that’s Brian’s biggest claim to fame.

    I think I may be in the youngest group of people who learned how to use a slide rule.

  5. I wonder if Miles muses as philosophically over his 5-space math classes.


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