An Ode to Math

I think we need to talk about an important component in the sciences, one that gets a terrible reputation, is often scorned, and legions of people claim hatred of or ineptitude at: it is math. Poor math. But you know what? Math is actually pretty cool and there are so many different aspects of it. There is something for everyone.

Let’s start with this article where it seems that Canadian students are no longer leading the way in math. Alberta, where I live, used to be the country’s leader and is now struggling to perform. This breaks my heart. Math is so critical. I don’t really understand this “discovery based learning” of math. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of making sure that people understand there is more than one way to skin some sort of animal and that there are limits to what rote memorisation can get you. However, there are certain things that do need to be committed to memory because they will form the basics tools for more complex learning later on: notes on a scale — you cannot memorise every possible combination, but you do need to know what is in an octive to play music; words in a language — again, you cannot memorise every sentence you will ever need, but you will need to memorise the various words that make up your vocabulary; the alphabet and the sounds the letter make — imagine trying to learn to read if you can’t remember what sound the letter “t” makes? I equate that memorising multiplication tables is the same. By knowing that 3×9=27 it is much easier to solve 99 x 3. (99×3=297)

I know that math is difficult

Here’s the thing: math is critical to life. Okay, so you may never have to solve the Schrödinger equation for the hydrogen atom, but I bet you will have to figure out a budget. Whether it is a household budget or the billion dollar budget of a province, it is kind of important to make sure that your math is correct.

How about this: my mother is one of the greatest math whizzes I have ever met. Does she use her prodigious skill in putting together new designs for military jets at an engineering firm? Not so much — instead she uses those skills to further a hobby that keeps us all warm: she makes quilts. (She even made me one with a double helix on it in celebration of my PhD.) If you ever want to meet someone who can add quickly in only fractions, talk to a quilter. Each seam has to be 1/4 of an inch. You are making four squares made two 4″ right angle triangles. How much fabric to you need? My mother probably wouldn’t ever consider herself to be on the level of John Nash, but I have watched her add up everything she needs for these patterns in such a quick fashion that even Euclid would have to take notice. I am happen to be a pretty deft hand at math, and I found it hard to follow her calculations, she’s that good.

Just an example of one quilt she made.

Just an example of one quilt she made.

Quilt making is just one example of how you can use math in a very not boring way. Look at how pretty the geometric patterns of a quilt are. Here’s another way you might need to be good with math: baking or cooking. Ever need to double a recipe? Ever need to cut it in half? Ya, that is all math. Delicious math, but still math.

I will admit, despite being good with math, I did find math class a little dull. Probably because it lacks context. But put me in a chemistry class where I need to figure out the quantity of an analyte in a solution through a series of back calculations, I am hooked. It is so neat that knowing this concentration and that volume, this molecular mass and that dilution factor, I can tell you how much calcium was present in a water sample. That math never “feels” like math. It is seems so straightforward and easy; after all, it is just multiplication and division, set up using the same principles that I learned when memorising my multiplication tables in fourth grade.

That’s the thing about math: it is everywhere. It is hiding in your budgets, lurking in your kitchen, sneaking in your job, but it is always there, giving you a helping hand when you need it, making sure that life makes sense. Imagine getting on a plane without math. How safe would you feel if some of those calculations about lift and drag weren’t quite right? Or imagine getting surgery. The calculations that the anesthesiologist uses are very precise-ensuring that you remain unconscious but not dead. (That would be why they are paid A LOT of money.)

Math is your friend. You don’t need to be Stephen Hawking to enjoy the benefits of math. And I bet that most of you, in your own way, are pretty good at math. Let’s change the reputation math has and start giving it the credit it is do. From music to planetary movements, math is pretty cool.

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