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**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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