‘One cannot survive without math’

Ismael Isak, Senior Reporter

When I was a child I enjoyed doing magic tricks. My younger siblings and parents loved it. But I soon realized I couldn’t go far with magic because I thought to myself, “Hey if they loved that trick then they will really love how it works.” So I showed them, and I got a blank stare from my little sister and she said “I could do that myself easily, I take back my applause.” A good magician never reveals his secrets, but I always would because I couldn’t resist. Now I have the same problem with mathematics, if only I could keep my mouth shut people would think I was a math whiz.

I enjoy doing mathemagic, because it gives the impression that I am a human calculator. Getting people to notice what you are doing is the first step in sharing ideas. If they are impressed then they will most likely listen to what you have to say. This also applies to multiplication.

What is 44 x 7? I already hear the sigh’s and calculators being pulled but I am certain almost anyone can solve that problem quickly in their mind if they slowed down and broke it down into bite-sized chunks. What is 40 x 7? Well that’s 280. Now what’s 4 x 7? It’s 28. Now if you add those two numbers together you will get 308. We broke it down and turned it into simple multiplication and addition, which makes the process much easier.

You have heard that mathematics is the language of the universe, but people don’t usually elaborate after saying something like that. Well it’s certainly true, the more we learn about our universe from star clusters to elementary particles, the more we learn about its mathematical connections. Flowers have spirals that line up with a special sequence of numbers (called Fibonacci numbers) that you can generate yourself. Seashells form in amazing mathematical curves (or logarithmic spirals) that come from chemical balances. Star clusters move in a pattern that we can predict using mathematics, even billions of miles away.

Most people have been dealing with billions most of their lives. Just think about how many digits are in a phone number? 10 digits right, well that’s also called a billion. Count the numbers 1,000,000,000. I hear people rattling off their phone numbers from the top of their heads without even a stutter, so how could someone so comfortable with 10 digit numbers be brought to his or her knees by two digit numbers? This is caused by math anxiety, which is a multidimensional problem that I will tackle to the best of my ability.

Certain psychologists would have you believe that math anxiety comes purely from a lack of preparation, but I completely disagree with that. Let’s take a freshman history class as an example. Say they have a quiz on who wrote The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. I would put Thomas Jefferson as an answer, but most people would elaborate and say that it was a committee of five individuals that included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Sherman, and Robert Livingston, all without buying the textbook or even showing up to class. People are incredibly comfortable with U.S. history since they were exposed to it from a young age, but they were also probably taught mathematics before history.

I discussed math anxiety with Dr. Dibbs, and it seems to stem from childhood trauma, usually with fractions. I am not a psychologist or sociologist, but I believe it is ridiculous for an adult to blame his or her disdain for mathematics for something one teacher did one time in one class 20 years ago. I want to help people realize that mathematics is this beautiful archipelago of knowledge, and it all starts with children. The way to make children interested in mathematics is by connecting math to our lives. Have you ever wondered how Amazon comes up with recommendations for you? Well there are sophisticated algorithms at play which analyze your past purchases and correlate you to other individuals who are determined to have similar preferences. All that data is processed and you are presented with recommendations. Now I am not suggesting that this is a good thing, but we should at least be aware of these algorithms invading our lives, and they are based on mathematics.

I look at other fields and disciplines and see how they are part of the public discourse, while mathematics never is. Let’s take art as an example. Not everyone visits art museums, but if the feeling struck them one weekend they could go to an art museums and admire the painting there, or search up the masterpieces by Picasso, Van Gogh, and Leonardo Da Vinci. But hardly anyone is aware of the mathematical masterpieces out there.

English professors will say our language skills need improving, computer scientists will insist that we need to understand code, and the art world tells us we should appreciate paintings more. Now mathematicians are telling us we should understand and appreciate mathematics, but we only have so much space in our minds and so much time. So why am I putting mathematics above these other subjects? Literature and art are very important subjects that require our understanding and appreciation because they allow us to express our emotions and most importantly they bring us together. As important as they are, one can survive without literature and art, but one cannot survive without mathematics.

The German mathematician Georg Cantor, who is best known for set theory and discovering that there are an infinite of infinities, said, “The essence of mathematics lies entirely in its freedom.” I would change that quote a bit and say, “Where there is no mathematics there is no freedom.”

We cannot discover a new continent like Columbus, or be the first to walk on the moon. But what if I told you that there is this beautiful world out there, with so many things left to learn and discover, and the best part is you don’t need to travel anywhere to go there. It’s right at your fingertips.

If we present mathematics in the right way to children we will have them running to class instead of away from it. They will discuss it with their friends and family, and perform mathematics in their free time. You will hear them say “this is the coolest stuff in the world.” Coolest stuff in the world and yet everyone hates it. Isn’t it ironic?

I would like to thank Dr. Dorsett for having that short conversation with me on Saturday, because the few words he said tied this whole article together.

Recommended readingS:

Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality by Edward Frenkel

Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem by Simon Singh

A History of Mathematics Second Edition by Carl B. Boyer

Secrets of Mental Math: The Mathemagicians Guide to Lightning Calculation and Amazing Math Tricks by Arthur Benjamin