in defense of everyone’s least favorite subject
What is an article about math doing in Arts & Culture? Math is terrible and I don’t want to read about it. My geometry teacher was so mean. She made us write stupid proofs about triangles. I hate triangles. I’ll never use math in my life. I’m bad at it anyway.
If you’ve thought, said or heard variations on this theme, please read on.
This article is not a defense of algebra. This article is not sponsored by math teachers who demand more respect. This article is best understood as a parent defending a child at a parent-teacher conference (“Jenny’s not a bad kid, she’s just different”). In other words, math receives a lot of hate, and I would like to take this opportunity to defend it.
The first reason I love math is the reason anyone studies anything: I think it’s beautiful.
Math is beautiful the way a poem is beautiful. Like poetry, math tries to respond to the question, “How does the world work?” Math seeks the underlying truth. Math breaks life down to its essence and finds its hidden connections. When you prove a theorem, you’re uncovering secrets, not creating them. It’s as though you’re a mouthpiece for the world.
Math research is discovery. Just like doing experiments in a lab, math goes down path after path in search of a meaningful result. There is trial and error. There are methods, tools, ideas, theories. Your field is numbers, your work is done on paper, but the results are concrete and useful. Most theorems will one day be applied. But a proof in math is not tentative: when you prove a statement, that statement is true for all time periods, places and cases. It’s powerful and universal. It holds no matter how much weight you put on it, no matter how much you question it. A proof in math is the final word.
That brings me to the next reason I love math: it transcends everything, even us. Numbers and symbols are like words; they stand for things that will always be true, even if language itself disappears. We can’t change math, just as we can’t change the way the universe is structured. Math is there, behind every curve of nature, every shape, waiting for us to find it. Math is in pinecones and sunflowers. But it gets better: math holds true in any universe, not just ours. It is invincible. Math is beautiful through its immortality.
Of course, as anyone who has studied math knows, nearly every mathematician hates her work from time to time. Like most creative endeavors, math can be frustrating. But to keep from sinking, you have to remember what it feels like when you finally integrate an impossible function, or when someone explains an abstract idea in a way you completely understand. With every new topic you learn, you open the door to a new set of bigger, more important concepts. Math builds infinitely on itself. To stop learning math would, for me, be like abandoning a mountain climb halfway to the top.
Maybe you’re with me on the beauty of math, but you still don’t think you, personally, are capable of being a mathematician. Luckily, being a mathematician doesn’t mean you need years of training, or the backing of an institution. You become a mathematician the same way you become a writer: you work and work until eventually you go from being someone who dabbles in math, someone who writes for fun, to being a full-fledged member of the field. You don’t have to be Gauss or John Nash (super math geniuses) to contribute to mathematics. All you have to be is open, patient and willing to start over time and time again.
I promised this wasn’t propaganda, so I don’t mean to argue that everyone reading this article should study math. But somehow, somewhere along the way, studying math acquired a deep stigma that most other fields don’t seem to have. You—anyone reading this article—can do math. What’s more, you don’t have to do it at a desk: you can solve problems in the park, in the shower, on the treadmill—wherever you do your best thinking.
QED: you don’t have to study math, but there are plenty of excellent reasons why it’s a wonderful field to choose.