A Mathematicians Anti-rant

A Mathematicians Anti-rant

This is a rant over other people ranting about people’s ignorance towards mathematics. Or rather an anti-rant since two negatives makes a positive (sometimes). Got your attention? Good, now read on.

By now I have seen a fair share of bitter remarks  over the theme that someone presents them self as a mathematician, and the answer they get is a blank stare and a comment in the ball park of “I can’t even balance my own checkbook”. Same theme of rant also cover someone stating that “Oh, mathematics is easy. It is just memorizing the formulas and plug in the numbers!”.

I have seen them and I have laughed hard over the witty retorts and remarks people have come up with. But I had an epiphany when I thought more about it. The person stating those things are not necessarily being rude, but in their world that is what mathematics is. I agree with you that comments like that are narrow minded  but the person who states it doesn’t know that there is a lot more to the wonderful world of maths.

What I realized is that most things can be reduced to a statement of “Oh that’s easy! Just…” So let me give you an example of a hobby of mine: Photography.

Oh Photography! Now that’s easy!

With today’s camera all you need to do is turn it on and press the shutter, and BANG you have a photo.

Photo of MushroomsWell true you have a photo just like aunt Olga’s 225 vacation photos from some boring resort. The photos are bland the composition sucks and she didn’t really know what she wanted to tell with the photos. Indeed it is photos but they are not really interesting. Taking interesting photos takes knowledge, care and planning. A study of technique, composition and not least hours and hours of practice.

The picture on the right is a photo I spent about half an hour to take. It took a lot of experimenting with mixing the natural light with a flash, and not least getting the composition right. I really like the photo though. Most people can probably tell if a photo is good, I can usually tell what makes it good. The difference is that I have years of practice and interest in it.

A colleague of mine came to work really proud with a photo of a cake his wife made for his daughter’s birthday. It was this bright pink cake formed as a dress around a barbie doll. I am sure it was the most beautiful cake a 4 year old girl could imagine.

However, what I immediately saw was how this wall plug was growing out of the back of the barbie which happens when you are not careful with the interaction between foreground and background. He could have avoided that by taking half a step to the left. I also noticed that the white balance was off. Besides that he should have taken the shot closer to the cake and at a lower angle.

I could have made funny remarks and retorts about his knowledge of photography.  But how should he know? He just used all the photography skills he had to get the result – a picture of the cake he could show me.

So where do I want to go with this?

So photo can be reduced to something trivial even if it contains lots of depth and study. However, there is an important difference between photography and mathematics. Photography  is easy to show people. You can whip out the smartphone and show them your 3-5 best shots. So you can meet people in terms they understand and that they can rather easily relate to. Even though they still don’t know all the work and mechanics behind it.

Mathematics is different. Mathematics beyond arithmetic is highly abstract and requires a special way of thinking to get the grasp the workings of it. And it is not something you are exposed to in your everyday life. Well, sure you use lots of things relying on mathematical breakthroughs, but you can’t see that when you use your GPS or smart phone.

So people who state that math is easy are right –  it is easy in their world. They don’t know that there exist more to it than that. If they state that they don’t get math, it is probably because they were introduced to something abstract but stopped there and never got to the level where they can see these abstract things loop back into the real world.

So now we are getting to my point. When people say something you find derogatory about math they are likely right in their world and not really trying to be provocative. Try to put your self in their shoes and think. Do they know that arithmetic is just a small part of mathematics, or is that all they have ever been taught? Tp be anecdotal again;  another colleague and good friend of mine once told me something wise when I got pissed off by someone. He said “The person with the greater surplus should always try to see things from the other person’s perspective and act based on that”. I still hate him for being so right about that.

If they don’t know better, you have no right whining about it. You have a job to do! You need to explain what the maths, you are working with, is about in a terms they can  relate to. I know it is insanely difficult for some areas, but you need to work on it since you are the one with the knowledge. Personally I have at least five different stories I can tell in a short time about my work depending on what level of understanding people are at, and what I think they find interesting. And trust me people will let you know if they are bored.

So, it was a long rant but the point is: Don’t make retorts and don’t be mad at them, in their world mathematics is equal to arithmetic. If you want them to know otherwise you have to teach them, since there is no way they will discover it for them self.

Image credits

The image was created by Shoutput.com and kindly shared under the creative commons license. So a little shout our for them

Posted by Kristian

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