Thursday, 21 April 2011


Mathematics, or as we call it here in the UK, “maths”, is a cultural victim of our times. Very few people will admit publicly to struggling with reading, or claim that there is no need to understand long words, but many will say, even boast, that they “were never any good at maths” or that since they have a calculator, they do not need to know anything about it. People who are good at maths are seen a little bit like the “mad scientist” of contemporary contempt, although there is something worse about the “mad mathematician” – he (inevitably it is a he) is a loner, ugly, geeky, with curious taste in out of date jackets and glasses.
The only way to combat this is to encourage people to study it. For themselves. For fun. Believe me, it is not only possible but easy and it does make people rethink their prejudices when you are asked what you do in your spare time. For if you, a normal person, with nice clothes and a car, can study maths, well, then – it can’t be so bad, can it?
So why do it?
how_it_worksFirstly, because it is knowledge. It is not culturally contextual, ideologically biased knowledge, but a series of statements about the workings of the entire universe. This idea should be enough to give us pause for thought. When you study maths you study the world as it is. x² is 64, or 144, or 256, or whatever. It just is. Whenever you perform the operation of squaring on a number, you get the same result each time (if you’ve done it correctly). Squaring – multiplying a number by itself – is one of the most common operations in maths, and occurs almost everywhere in nature – from circles to bacterial growth to nuclear reactions. When you do this, you are not just pointlessly tapping numbers into a calculator, you are looking into the mysteries of the universe.
Secondly, because no amount of calculation is ever pointless. Even if you are one of these people who thinks algebra is rubbish, every calculation you perform is making your mind more flexible and quicker. It is making you if not more intelligent, then more able to use your intelligence. And how wonderful to perform a long multiplication without needing the calculator. Not because you can boast about it afterwards, but because your brain – you – can do it. You can. Not a lump of plastic you keep in a drawer or a bit of your laptop you hardly ever use, but you.
mathematicsMaths is full of neat puzzles. Sometimes the ways through them seem abstruse or even perverse, but when you learn the steps you learn the logic of them and you can guide yourself through the stages of equations with a kind of calm that is intensely relaxing. It is, believe it or not, beautiful to work through an equation and give a value of x (or two, or three) at the end that you know – for certain – to be completely correct. It is also immensely satisfying to struggle through an equation or a problem and eventually, after having given up on it for days, to work it out. And it can happen. This mini sense of achievement is all the more glorious for being inconsequential: for you are learning, yes, solving problems, certainly, but you are also, by degrees, learning about yourself and your capacity to do things you did not think you could. And all without the fear of jumping out of a plane or whatever else it is people do to learn about themselves.
funny-maths-5For myself, pure mathematics – the more abstract the better – is the glory of the subject. That it appears to have no relevance to the real world but belongs to an invisible category of forces or functions, which govern the world without being obvious to us all, is wonderful. But for those who don’t like this, and prefer to remain anchored in the real world, Statistics and Mechanics offer them the nuts and bolts opportunities to do maths and solve real world company/profit/marketing/engineering problems. In Statistics you get to work with extremely strange looking equations while actually doing something useful – standard deviation, for example.
funny_maths_02Finally you have to admit that maths and the people who have unravelled it over the millennia is and are extremely clever. Take simultaneous equations. Solve two equations? At once? It can’t be done. Yes it can. Once you learn it, it makes total sense, but while you don’t, and you vaguely fear it, it seems like an act of magic. And no, I’m not giving it away now – look it up! Part of the pleasure in mathematics is the sheer seeming-cleverness of its laws – or, to return to an earlier point, the neatness and beauty of the way this entire world actually works.
It doesn’t matter what level you choose to study but do study this subject, if you can. It is easy and cheap to do it by correspondence course and there are lots of online materials to help. All you really need is a calculator, a pencil, a textbook and paper. You will struggle through bits, bits you will always hate, but at the end – a year, two years, five years – you will not only know more about the universe, but you will be a better, cleaner, sharper thinker. And mathematics will no longer just be a pointless load of numbers and letters, though of course there are plenty of those, but a part of your understanding. You will be happier for it, even if only by a fraction…