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Math, what is it good for?

This is why I like math. Math has rules. If you know the rules, you can figure out any problem.
    -dragnflye, 10 Jun 2006

You need to know math to be alive.
    -taiji_jian, 18 Jul 2006

So, what is entailed in needing mathematics? what does it mean to say "we all need math"?

Certainly it's true of analytical mathematics and music, where by analysis we mean the study of limits that underlies calculus, trigonometry, topology, even the algebra of series. Yes, a programmer or an engineer needs to apply mathematics to problem-solving. More importantly, though, it exercises a part of your brain that may be useful in nonmathematical pursuits.

Just as computer science is not mere systems administration and configuration, just as programming is not just wielding a computer, you have to think of mathematics as an exercise of skill independent from applications of that skill. I think math rests on a foundation that is common to many subject, that foundation being analytical thinking and pattern-based reasoning. As taiji_jian was saying, that foundation underlies math; I wouldn't say that it is math. I would say that math is the pure exercise of that thinking, and so is artistic creativity. A good analogy might be learning a martial art so that one can fight (possibly important) versus developing the cognitive discipline that allows one to practice the actual art.

What I agree with taiji_jian about is that people who study math are exercising a cognitive skill that can transfer to art - and vice versa, in some kinds of art.

[18:48:42] * taiji_jian has not completely forgotten everything that he drilled into his brain back when he was studying math 4 hours a day
[18:49:20] <taiji_jian> And I needed to finish highschool math so I could do college calculus
[18:49:53] <jereeza> well I needed to pass
[18:54:33] <jereeza> god I hated maths. we had as much maths & science as the science branch, and they only had one foreign language! fuckers!
[18:54:47] <figgylicious> and NO art classes
[18:55:07] <jereeza> well ok we didn't have art classes in highschool either, only art history
[18:55:11] <figgylicious> and I had to do physics and biology and chemistry and math and economics
[18:55:30] <figgylicious> in my life before college I took ONE art class, way back in 9th grade
[18:55:42] * taiji_jian shakes his head sadly
[18:55:57] <taiji_jian> You're acting like art precludes math
[18:56:06] <figgylicious> it so does
[18:56:07] <taiji_jian> Art depends on math!
[18:57:09] <jereeza> architecture does, pag. and you misworded your statement
[18:57:13] <taiji_jian> "Needing" math doesn't mean, like, encountering textbook problems in daily life
[18:57:34] <jereeza> art depends on knowing proportions and perspective and bodies and planes
[18:57:35] <taiji_jian> Which, I agree, doesn't happen often, unless you're an engineer (or an architect) or something
[18:57:43] <figgylicious> if you mean 'everything uses math' well good then. but i never use it consciously
[18:57:45] <taiji_jian> But it's like protien or something
[18:58:04] <taiji_jian> It builds your brain
[18:58:04] <figgylicious> I don't NEED to know any math to do art
[18:58:13] <taiji_jian> You NEED to know math to be alive
[18:58:13] <jereeza> it's just the world around us. art deals with it in one way, sciences in another
[18:58:15] <taiji_jian> The more math you know
[18:58:17] <taiji_jian> The better your brain is
[18:59:58] <jereeza> so I guess my brain works fine fuelled by humanities alone ;)
[19:00:01] <figgylicious> I UNDERSTAND that everything uses math. And good. Good for math. But [I don't] want to know how.
[19:02:48] <taiji_jian> It's not about specific instances of math, fig, or about using math skills in real life or whatever.
[19:02:52] <taiji_jian> It's about thought-patterns
[19:03:08] * banazir agreens

The full transcript (with a little horseplay and some irrelevant remarks cut for brevity) can be found here.



( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 23rd, 2006 10:55 pm (UTC)
Need for math
Your post caused me to dig up a comment that I'd posted in slashdot about 6 months ago - Titled why bother learning math.

Math is truly the most awsome among all subjects. Learning it offers you the kind of freedom that is unmatched by learning any other subject. Have you noticed how a mathematician can switch easily between multiple areas of study? That's cuz one can apply math to almost every field imaginable from Language (Computational Linguistics) to Biology (Computational Biology). I don't mean to dismiss learning other subjects (it's important to be well rounded) but can any other subject gift you you with such amazing flexibility?

There's beauty and elegance in a mathematical result which will always remain true forever. School kids even today, study about the Pythogoras theorem - a mathematical result that was established more than 2 thousand years ago. You're learning Calculus that was discovered by Newton & Liebniz several hundred years ago. Compare this with other fields like Management where the MBA syllabus keeps changing as newer management techniques and new buzzwords/MBA jargon are invented.

Again, I don't mean to dis MBA dudes. It's just that in an fast paced information age where paradigms are constantly being challenged and new ones being invented, it is reassuring to have a body of knowledge that you can always depend on no matter what.

Seriously! You don't have to be good at math (I'm just a lowly Master's and that too in CS :)) to appreciate the beauty and elegance of this amazing subject.

In short, I believe learning math makes you free. A pity that it's taught so badly in my country.
Jul. 23rd, 2006 11:55 pm (UTC)
i'd love to see this post expanded
Jul. 24th, 2006 01:03 am (UTC)
Expanded post
Sure - when I have time, I will write more of my thoughts.

What did you have in mind?

Jul. 24th, 2006 12:31 am (UTC)
When I worked as a peer adviser at my undergrad institution it was always amazing to see the differences between our department (engineering) and the humanities. For instance, most engineers would select their major based on what they wanted to do (at least roughly). In humanities, we were told to counsel students that it didn't matter what their major was. This shocked me the first time a heard it because obviously it mattered. I don't get to be an engineer without a background in engineering fundamentals. However, on the other side of campus that didn't matter as much.

We were told to advise students that college taught you three things, regardless of major-reading, writing, and critical thinking. It made me cringe. Half the people in my engineering classes were incapable of thinking critically outside the narrow scope of text based problem sets and they were in a major that was critical thinking. I'd taken humanity classes and done no real critical/analytical thinking, just rote memorization and regurgitation.

Anyway, my point is that I think that math and science are the most effective way to build up the critical thinking muscles in your brain. No, most people aren't going to need derivatives and integrals in everyday life, but the mental exercise is good for you in having the discipline and proper mind-set to solve other problems. Instead of forcing everyone to take watered down Calculus in college, I would much rather require a class in the fundamentals of math (what are the various ways you can prove things? etc)
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 4th, 2006 05:04 pm (UTC)
Indeed it does
My experience was closer to mrs_dragon's, even though I went to a private undergrad university (Johns Hopkins) with a strong humanities program and what was a small engineering college at the time (700 out of 3100 undergrads).

Aug. 4th, 2006 08:45 pm (UTC)
I think it also depends a great deal on instructors and their expectations. I'm very happy to hear not all humanities departments are like that though! : )
Jul. 24th, 2006 02:22 am (UTC)
math is
mental masturbation and somewhat useful
Jul. 24th, 2006 02:24 am (UTC)
Re: math is
just as earth is mostly harmless.
Jul. 24th, 2006 04:58 am (UTC)
Mental masturbation
Elaborate, please.

(In intellectual detail, not graphic, thanks.)

Jul. 24th, 2006 09:24 am (UTC)
Okay, I'll bite (a bit)
Exactly what math is everyone referring to?

1) Specific kinds of math that are used as a tool in specific situations?
2) Math as a philosophy/system to describe/define (aspects of) the world?
3) Math as an art form?

Jul. 24th, 2006 09:34 am (UTC)
Define "math"
1. No. Well, a qualified "no": taiji_jian and I were not using it this way. jereeza, who has sat through a few real math lectures courtesy of dashamus, and 3p, who was precocious both in languages and math as a child, still thought of specific applications first, but they and figgylicious came around to the more general definition.

2. Yes. Primarily this. I think only taiji_jian and I among these five have really delved into the transcendent, abstract representative and descriptive aspects of math.

3. That too, but as an art in its own right, Math clearly does not "underlie art", be they the creative visual arts or art appreciation, or something else.

Jul. 28th, 2006 02:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Okay, I'll bite (a bit)
I was going to say more, but it'd be just an echo of jereeza's position...
Jul. 24th, 2006 05:58 pm (UTC)
I have a hard seperating the practice of math from disclipline and mental fortitude that is developed during the process. However, I "use math" every day of my life. I don't think you can be a sucessful human being without the use of basic arithmetic for simple things as budgeting. Considering the credit card debt in this country most people lack this simple skill. They get in debt and never manage to get out, no matter what their life situation is. (I know people who are still paying for a rough economic patch that happened 10 years ago!) Math->Budget->Ability to plan.

Another example, knitting is fairly math intensive as well. For projects where gauge matters, you can either go up and down needle sizes until you get the number of stitches per inch the pattern calls for, or you can use whatever needles you have and do some basic math to adjust the whole pattern to your gauge. Being a cheapskate, I often do that.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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