

Wednesday, 11 August 2004

Eric on math
posted at
06:48 PM

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A good post by Eric Lippert titled "Math is Everywhere" in which he posits seven reasons why the study of any subject, and particularly math, is never really a waste of time. His thesis in a nutshell:"When are we ever going to use this in real life?" has been the cry of bored math students since time immemorial. Though the vast majority mightn't a clue what "real life" entails, it's still a fair question that deserves an answer. Coming up with practical examples of math in real life is a reasonable approach.
But I would go further. I would deny the very implicit premises that the question is based upon: first, that the only really legitimate knowledge worth having is practical "real life" knowledge, second that anything which lacks an immediate, direct application is by definition impractical. Followed by the seven reasons. As always, various folks have opinions to post as comments.
I agree with the general premise, even though I am not a particularly good exemplar of why studying math is inherently a good thing. (On the contrary, I'm sort of the "this is what happens when you don't" counterexample, having terminated my mathematical studies shockingly early, it seems in retrospect.) I would comment thusly:
 Studying math is fun, just coz. I quit math early, but when I revisited it (in college, and later when my kids were busily bypassing my limited knowledge) I enjoyed it a heck of a lot more. As in, I enjoyed the homework a lot more than they did.
 There is such a thing as "practical" math for virtually everyone: arithmetic (tax on a purchase, savings during a sale, tips in restaurants, fractions in everything); finance (compound interest); probability (Lotto odds, accident and disease risk); geometry and topology (carpentry, sewing; cooking (!)); and several more I can't think of at the moment. Obviously, mastering this kind of math is not what Eric necessarily has in mind, but these are all everyday applications that anyone would have a use for.
Anyway, well worth a read.
PS I am extremely antipathetic to the question "Why do we have to study this?" since the answer is basically "Because people smarter than you have found good use for this knowledge." Oh, well.
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