Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Mathematics is not mathematics

We mathematicians are used to the fact that our subject is widely misunderstood, perhaps more than any other subject (except perhaps linguistics). Misunderstandings come on several levels.

One misunderstanding is that the subject has little relevance to ordinay life. Many people are simply unaware that many of the trappings of the present-day world depend on mathematics in a fundamental way. When we travel by car, train, or airplane, we enter a world that depends on mathematics. When we pick up a telephone, watch television, or go to a movie; when we listen to music on a CD, log on to the Internet, or cook our meal in a microwave oven, we are using the products of mathematics. When we go into hospital, take out insurance, or check the weather forecast, we are reliant on mathematics. Without advanced mathematics, none of these technologies and conveniences would exist.

Another misunderstanding is that, to most people, mathematics is just numbers and arithmetic. In fact, numbers and arithmetic are only a very small part of the subject. To those of us in the business, the phrase that best describes the subject is "the science of patterns," a definition that only describes the subject properly when accompanied by a discussion of what is meant by "pattern" in this context.

Read the entire article by mathematician Keith Devlin here.


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