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Maths Is Useful. How?

29/03/2016 12:17 | Updated 05 April 2016

I study mathematics. To the rest of us, mathematics is like the dark, scaring the living daylights out of us. However, I found a way to light it up, and I'd like to tell you how.

It started with my mother, who, when I was very small, kept telling me three words. She would say, "Maths is useful. Maths is useful. If you master it, no one can take advantage of you."

At least I was told that way. Therefore, I studied hard and got great grades, but I hadn't thought of its real uses until Form Three. An aspiring writer, I wanted to read literature, but my school's art stream didn't offer literature classes. However, the science stream offered a clear path towards A-Level Pure Mathematics, and since I topped the charts in both English and Mathematics, I thought to myself, Why not give mathematics a shot?

I researched and found many uses of it; a particularly helpful resource was Plus Magazine. Convinced of the truth in my mum's statement, I chose it.

I didn't do well in the A-Levels and got into a different field instead. When it was time to change my major, I could have chosen English, but I stuck to maths.

My mum asked, "Why?"

I said, "Because you told me 'Maths is useful', I've done my homework and I know you're right."

Then Mum said the most revealing thing I've ever heard, "Girl, what I meant was that addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are useful."

Those are elementary operations! The children I teach part-time also know them. I was about to thank Mum for "her" incredible foresight of the huge role maths plays in every sphere of life.

"Then why didn't you take up mathematics?" I asked. She was an arts student.

"Because of π." She meant the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. "My teacher wrote [the mathematical expressions] '2πr' and 'πr²' on the blackboard, and told us to memorise them. I raised my hand to ask, 'Why are the formulas that way?'"

Guess what the teacher said.

"'There's no explanation. Shut up and memorise them.'"

"That's a bad teacher," I exclaimed.

My mum continued, "But I still needed maths to do the shopping and pay the bills. That's why I said maths was useful."

But the usefulness of mathematics extends far beyond the mundane.

We use it to predict the weather and unravel the mysteries of the universe and the quantum world. In biology, we use the SIR model and variants thereof to predict and control the spread of epidemics like the Zika virus and Ebola.

Animation companies like Disney and Pixar use maths to render features realistically, including hair and snow.

Finally, we may not know it, but mathematics protects things dear to us, such as money and personal information. Cryptosystems based on number theory and algebra are our fortresses against data theft, while Lehman Brothers' fall was due to a faulty mathematical model. Why purposely remain foolish in what safeguards us?

My mum may have believed that maths the way she perceived it was useful, but not knowing her intended meaning when she said "Maths is useful" freed me to explore and tap into a new body of knowledge. As I could now bridge diverse fields to mathematics, I found myself in good company. An editor of the campus paper at my university, a young man who professed dislike towards mathematics at the beginning of our conversation, found himself pleasantly intrigued after I showed him some examples of mathematics in everyday life.

Things are not always what they seem. What have you been taught to accept without question? What have you tried not to explore? What have you been avoiding? Then go and find out the truth yourselves. You'll be surprised at the light you'll find.

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