Why Math Isn’t as Useless as We Think
Most of us spend our lives believing that math class was possibly the most unnecessary part of our education. The conception of math as having no real-world application begins in our early schooling, and it often lasts up until college (fueled by everyone who isn’t majoring in math but is forced to take college calculus anyways). Just the other day, I saw an Instagram post that said “Another day … still haven’t used y = mx + b.”
The issue I have with posts like this is that they miss the point. The math in our world is not hidden or nonexistent — we simply refuse to see it. In part, this is due to myths about math that we pick up during childhood. However, as we grow older and more consciously choose what we learn, for some reason we still choose to ignore math. If only we paid attention, we would see it everywhere.
Imagine for a moment that you are given the opportunity to watch someone go through life, from the moment of birth to his final breath. Let’s call this person Kyle. At different points in Kyle’s life, you check in with him. You get to see him growing up. When you first meet him, he is just an infant crawling around his crib, curiously exploring the small but new world around him.
Before you know it, Kyle is a toddler. He loves to play with his shape blocks and tries to fit them into the right holes. He becomes increasingly frustrated each time he fails, but the joy he feels when he finally figures it out makes it worthwhile.
A few years later, you buy Kyle a Rubik’s cube. He becomes entranced by its patterns and colors and constantly tries to solve it. He finds a website to learn how to solve the cube and is elated when he finally does it. He can’t help but brag at first, but by the time he is a teenager he has all but forgotten the cube.
In high school, Kyle learns that feelings suck and emotions make no logical sense when his first crush rejects him. He beats himself up over this, but with the help of his friends (and his angel of a mother), he stays strong. Over time, he learns that although emotions are complicated, with time and patience they can be understood.
Eventually, Kyle enters adulthood, and he begins to see the world differently. He takes it in slowly. He enjoys its beauty. He asks questions and realizes that he won’t always find answers; in fact, he often ends up more confused than he started. For the rest of his life, Kyle lives this way, letting curiosity and contemplation dominate his days. Though progress is slow, he learns a tad more about the world (and himself) each day. And in his old age, Kyle has the one thing that we all envy in others. He is happy.
Unknowingly, Kyle spent his entire life as a mathematician. Infant Kyle’s curiosity in his crib was the starting point, for mathematicians are nothing if not curious. And though he may not have realized it at the time, the blocks he played with as a young boy built up the geometric intuition essential to multivariable calculus. The Rubik’s cube he played with in middle school? Well, the method he used to solve it was based on algebraic group theory. Perhaps most interestingly, even the illogical state of his emotions and feelings as a teen can be likened to math. In the realm of real analysis, it’s been shown that the number of numbers between 0 and 1 is the exact same as the number of numbers between 1 and infinity. This appears to make little sense. However, with mathematical maturity it becomes more understandable — in much the same way that Kyle’s feelings and emotions began to make more sense to him when he grew older. As for the rest of Kyle’s life — he lived it freely, always questioning, always learning, and always confused (but in a good way). Put simply, he lived as mathematicians do. In the words of famous British mathematician Marcus du Sautoy,
“Mathematics has beauty and romance. It’s not a boring place to be, the mathematical world. It’s an extraordinary place; it’s worth spending time there.”
Kyle may be a made-up character, but his life story is relatable enough for us all to see little reflections of ourselves in him. We see that math is not an obscure subject reserved for some pretentious intellectual nobility. Though we may not be aware of it, mathematics is embedded into many different aspects of our lives and our world — and by understanding it deeply, we may just gain a greater understanding of ourselves.