Throughout the semester
we have studied numerous mathematicians in MTH 495. We have learned about
mathematicians from ancient Greece to China, and have been led through the
centuries by great mathematical discoveries. As we learned about these great
thinkers, it struck me how much “math” encompasses, and the contrast of this
vastness to the small scope the term evokes in the minds of most people today.

By nature, humans want to understand
the world around them. Mathematics is a language the world speaks that humans can
understand. Math is the tool that humans use to investigate the nature of the
world, though it is rarely taught as so in today’s Western society.

To many people today, math is seen as
numbers, a calculator, and equations. It is seen as a requirement, a monotonous
lecture, and as an overrated skill. Math has been parsed off from what it
initially was, and, in a sense, what we consider “math” today is more confined
that it ever has been.

Archimedes was a mathematician. He was
also a physicist, an engineer, an inventor, and an astronomer. Omar Khayyam was
a mathematician, a philosopher, an astronomer, and a poet. Brahmagupta is
considered a mathematician and an astronomer, but his texts were composed in
elliptic verse, which shows a poetic intellect in the man as well. Rene Descartes
was a mathematician, a great philosopher, and a writer. These great men are considered
mathematicians, and in that overarching term lay discoveries in optics
(Decartes), weaponry (Archimedes), a calendar that is more accurate than the
one used today (Omar Khayyam), hydrostatics (Archimedes), and so much more.

In their day, what were the labels
put on these men? Were they identified as contributing to each of the
disciplines mentioned above, were all of their discoveries considered
mathematical discoveries, or were there few labels used at all? Why do we limit
math as it is today, so early on? In grade school and even high school, math is
taught separate from astronomy. Separate from the other sciences as well, in
most cases. Math might be brought up in a physics class, but rarely is it
explained why the formulas work the way they do, why we can put numbers and
equations to a natural phenomenon. Perhaps more tragically, in high school I
can’t remember more than a handful of times in a math class where any other
discipline was brought up to help me understand and appreciate why I was
learning what was taught. Students lose interest in math without even gaining
the slightest understanding of its importance in the world.

All of the men I mentioned were
mathematicians, but they were also big thinkers who wanted to understand the
world. They did this through math, but also though philosophy, physics, and
astronomy. These disciplines are ones that frequently come to people’s minds
when the question of “What discipline seeks to understand the world, and human’s
place in it?” It is a tragedy that math, the foundation of physics and
astronomy, and a sister to philosophy, would rarely be unveiled as an answer to
many today.

“Mathematics is the queen of sciences and number
theory is the queen of mathematics. She often condescends to render service to
astronomy and other natural sciences, but in all relations she is entitled to
the first rank.”-Carl Friedrich Gauss

Good essay. Strong point and well supported. Are there any benefits to today's separation of math? How might it have come about? What would happen if it ended?

ReplyDeleteReminds me a bit of Conrad Wolfram's TED on teaching computing instead. http://www.ted.com/talks/conrad_wolfram_teaching_kids_real_math_with_computers