Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Why Do I Need to Study Math?

Why Do I Need to Study Math?

As long as I’ve been in school, people have told me I needed to study math. It never made sense to me. I mean, it would make sense if I was an accountant or an engineer, but I had always been an English person. My dream job was to be an author. What author ever needed calculus?

Then, on Thanksgiving during my freshman year of college, my parents asked me how many potatoes they needed for a recipe. The original recipe—which served about twenty people—called for something like eight pounds of potatoes. We only needed sixteen servings. I figured a potato weighed about half a pound. So that’s sixteen potatoes in the original recipe. And the adaptation is sixteen out of twenty, which is three fourths, and three fourths of sixteen is….

As I did the math in my head, slowly, I could feel my family looking at me and at each other. Even though I eventually got the right answer, the judgment came fast. I was a good student, and of course my parents knew that. But math is almost universally, almost unconsciously, seen as the definitive sign of intelligence. There is a reason that the name “Einstein” has become synonymous with genius.

Last week I wrote that grammar is a “code” of the adult world, a way of letting people know that you’re educated. That’s true. However, in my experience, people are pretty willing to let grammar rules slide—when you see enough inter-office emails, you’re bound to catch a few dangling participles or subject-verb disagreements. Arithmetic mistakes, on the other hand, can really stand out. Most people will never know if you write a mean essay, but messing up a simple arithmetic problem can be a public embarrassment.

That’s not all. Even though when I was first starting college I couldn’t imagine why an English major would need math, it turns out math is incredibly relevant to literature, and becoming more and more relevant as time goes on. Revolutions in computer science, astrophysics, and neurobiology have inspired a lot of young authors to write about these topics, challenging their readers and their critics to follow their mathematical language. The novelist Don DeLillo claims that his fiction is inspired by mathematics books[1]. The Pulitzer Prize winning poet Rita Dove was inspired by her father, a research chemist who helped her with math problems[2]. And Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy has been said to know more about math than many professionals[3].

In fact, mathematics is relevant to all kinds of disciplines. Businesspeople obviously use math on a day-to-day basis. Some of the most influential painters and sculptors use complicated calculus and physics in their works. Architecture and music are essentially math by another name. Some of the greatest philosophers in history were mathematicians or used math in their writings, including Plato, Aristotle, Rene Descartes, and Bertrand Russell.

Of course, we do live in the age of calculators and the internet, and those tools will be useful for solving almost any arithmetic problem that comes your way. The point is, you just never know when you will have to dredge up differential equations or trigonometry. It’s better to have the knowledge prepared than to need it and not have it.

The mathematicians are inheriting the earth. It wouldn’t hurt to be one of them.

[1] http://quomodocumque.wordpress.com/2009/05/24/don-delillo-to-david-foster-wallace-on-reading-math/
[2] Ratiner, Steven and Rita Dove. “A Chorus of Voices: An Interview with Rita Dove.” Agni 54 (2001): 175.
[3] http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/02/12/cormac-mccarthy-on-the-sante-fe-institute-s-brainy-halls.html

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