For almost all of my life, I was a good student. I studied, made above average grades and if I ever struggled, I knew that all I needed to do was work harder. With one crucial exception, of course: Math. Ever since the start of middle school, I could not get a handle on math. It haunted me all the way to my last math class ever in the 12th grade. It didn’t matter what I did, teachers, tutors, other students – they couldn’t help me do better. I was always asking the wrong questions and coming up with the wrong conclusions that I was sure were the right ones. Even when I worked my butt off and managed to achieve an alright grade (my personal high was 86% on a midterm) it didn’t even feel like a win because I still didn’t understand what I was doing.
All of this, coupled with the fact that being good at math = being smart in high school made me feel exceptionally unintelligent for a while. It caused me to close myself off from certain discussions and made me sell myself short with reasoning and logic skills. I was often thinking to myself “Oh well I’m really bad at math so I won’t be able to understand or contribute to this discussion.”. It made me hate the subject as a whole and resent everything it had to offer, but even more than that it made me wonder why I was so uninterested in a supposedly fascinating subject. So it should come as a great surprise to you that by the end of this article, I will be singing math’s praises.
In school, in most subjects we learn about the greats in the fields of study that we are learning about. We learn of Shakespeare in English classes, Leonardo Da Vinci and Picasso in art, Newton and Einstein in physics. We rarely learn of the great mathematicians. We simply spend our time learning how to be computers in math class. Doing no more than repeating an algorithm over and over until we arrive at an answer, and often without being taught why what we are doing even makes sense. Just that if we do what we are told, we will arrive at the correct answer. While I know it is imperative that we learn these basic principles, we should also spend time simply learning about the great things that have been done with mathematics.
We should be learning about Turing, and the cryptographers that helped end WWII. Or maybe we should learn that it is thanks to mathematicians like Charles Babbage and Alan Turing that we have computers in our lives. We should learn of the two geniuses Newton and Leibniz who changed the entire world with the invention of calculus. We all learn of the Wright brothers who flew the first plane, or Edison who invented the light bulb. Most people are unaware that there even exist inventions in mathematics, or that these mathematical inventions are what end up leading to real world applications that has allowed our technology advance to where it is today.
Mathematics is a huge and vital part of the world that we live in. From the algorithms that make up your favourite video games to the cryptography technology behind the passcode on your smartphone, it’s all math. To break it down even more; math isn’t what you think it is. The art of mathematics (and yes, it is an art form) really boils down to being logical about thinking. Now that might strike you as odd, since as soon as we started school we have learned that math is all about numbers, 1+1=2 and all that jazz. But that is a gross simplification of a genuinely interesting subject that affects us all. To say that math is just about numbers is as ridiculous a claim as literature is just about the alphabet.
I think the main issue is that Western culture has this anti-math mentality that I was a major part of for most of my life. All it took was for someone to say “Ugh, I hate math” and almost without knowing it I would respond “You’re preaching to the converted”. Many seemingly intelligent students have struggled with mathematics and then bonded with others who had the same experience. Instead of going out on their own, past the limits of school education, they dismissed math entirely and labeled it stupid and something they would never use in real life. Of course the reality is that mathematics is vital to nearly everything we do in our life, but it is often hidden behind curtains so that we are not bothered by it in our daily life. Mathematics is not something to be feared, but something to be cherished. None of the things we take for granted today could ever be done without the help of maths.
I didn’t develop this pro-math mentality until recently, when I was introduced to some compelling literature and Youtube videos. It was these representations of mathematics in forms that I enjoyed that allowed me to put my terrible experiences in the past and open myself up to the possibility that math was actually interesting. I’m so happy that I took the chance to mend my relationship with math that my school years had so horrifically decimated. I have come out the other side a more open-minded and curious person, and I will no longer roll my eyes everytime I meet someone who tells me they are a math major.
- Love and Math by Edward Frenkel
- Things To Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension by Matt Parker
- Math Geek by Raphael Rosen
- Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter
- Magical Mathematics by Persi Diaconis and Ron Graham
The Maths of Star Trek by James Grime
Tic-Tac-Toe (with Xs only) by Numberphile
Measuring Distance on a Map by Mathademics
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