Understanding the Sampling Distribution
18 September 2018
Evaluating Mathematics Games
26 October 2018

Mathematics is powerful

The message of the moment is that Mathematics is beautiful and mathematics is playful. In my social media bubble of mathematics teachers the over-riding picture is of the joy of mathematics. I see puzzles and brainteasers aplenty on Facebook and Twitter. Mathematics educators strive to dispel the cloud of pain and drill that surrounds maths for far too many people. This site and our social enterprise are called Creative Maths, because we wish to create a world of mathematicians.

The joy of maths is a wonderful message, that resonates with people like me, who already love maths.

The joy of maths is NOT a message that works for everybody.

Once a person has been put off maths as a child, it takes more than telling them that maths can be fun and beautiful to engage them. A frequent alternative message is that mathematics is useful and practical, that we need mathematics in our jobs, and to do our budgeting and to measure our house for paint quantities. This practical view is provided as the balancing view to the beautiful mathematics message. Indeed, for some people, the message of usefulness works, but for others pragmatism seems a bit dull.

For some people mathematics is beautiful, joyful and playful. For some people mathematics is useful and practical.

I suggest a third, complementary message: Mathematics is powerful

Mathematics is Powerful

At a global level, mathematics saves lives, powers the internet, improves our daily lives and will save the human race from destruction.
At a local level, mathematics enables businesses to prosper, allows us to find our way, helps us make sensible food decisions and allows us to create works of art.

Different things help different people to engage with mathematics

For my husband, the flame of interest was lit at the age of thirteen when he learned that he could find the height of a tree using just an angle and measuring the distance to the base of a tree. “What magic is this?”, he asked himself. Interesting that he chose land surveying as his career!
For someone else the magic was in the absolute truth of some aspects of mathematics. A triangle with sides of 3, 4 and 5 will always have a right angle. This relationship helped ancient people to make buildings square.

What lit your mathematical flame?

For me the flame was lit when I learned about the ability of mathematics to model real-life processes to help with decision-making. I can work out the best mix of feeds to provide animals with optimum nutrition. I can schedule tasks so that the total elapsed time of a project is minimised and waiting time is reduced. I can calculate the number of servers needed for a given service level at a bank or a call-centre. I can use a model to maximise the number of scientific expeditions within a single season, bearing in mind all the complex needs and interactions. I can work out ways to make better use of hospital resources. I can provide a tool for people to discuss the location of a landfill, taking feelings into account as well as facts. All of these examples are from operations research, which is known as “The Science of Better”.

Examples of the power of mathematics

Here are some examples of the power of mathematics, that may work for you, or for your learners:

  • Mathematics makes sure that bridges and buildings stay up.
  • Mathematics allows your GPS to find the shortest route for you in very little time.
  • Mathematics reduces waste when used for inventory control, for distribution networks, for product creation.
  • Mathematics makes calculators, which means you don’t need to waste brain power on calculations.
  • Mathematics underpins statistical analysis which enables medical, biological, psychological and other research.
  • Mathematics explains the universe, such as why bees have hexagonal honeycombs, and how many galaxies there are.
  • Mathematics powers search engines so that you can be sent to the most popular hits within seconds.
  • Mathematics powers graphics software, so that you can draw perfect curves and save pictures digitally.
  • Mathematics drives spreadsheets, which host millions of models of businesses, projects and such.
  • Mathematics allows us to weigh up the trade-off between over-forecasting tornadoes and failing to warn.
  • Mathematics is used to create complex schedules for sports tournaments, making sure teams have equal numbers of home and away games, and do not travel for too long.
  • Mathematics allows us to analyse the effects of false positives in disease screening. (Something doctors are very poor at)
  • Mathematics makes it possible to balance sound at concerts, and use autotune.
  • Mathematics is a driver of social equality. Being at home with mathematics is a source of power. It opens doors to many different careers.

Empower our learners

So as well as letting our learners know that mathematics is fun and joyful and beautiful, let us make sure they also know that mathematics is powerful, and that they can tap into that power.

Teaching mathematics and statistics is an act of social justice.

How is mathematics powerful for you?

I would love to hear from you. What lit your flame of interest in mathematics? To the teachers: What examples have you used in your classes that have engaged different students?

6 Comments

  1. Bernard Liddington says:

    The logic – getting to that “So there” point. Especially geometric theorems and getting to QED and sensing the logic and beauty of the path.

  2. Doug Shaw says:

    For me, it was a long-ago high school maths teacher who could convey that there was something elegant about a mathematical proof.

    • Dr Nic says:

      Thanks for that, Doug. Elegance is cool. And when different parts of maths sort of blend in the middle, like with Pascal’s triangle.

  3. Jim says:

    My mathematics flame was lit by learning factorising algebraic expressions and geometric reasoning in junior high school. I felt the wonder of changing expressions to different formats and solving equations. Geometric reasoning like a language to empower my strengths in expressing my self.

    • Dr Nic says:

      Thanks for that, Jim. Definitely different things float different people’s mathematical boats. Early on I loved finding the areas of strange shapes.

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