Friday, May 14, 2021

Doing the math

by ELENA JOHNSON/Coeur Voice contributor
| April 3, 2021 1:00 AM

There are a lot of reasons to celebrate this time of year, from last week’s Passover feasts to tomorrow’s Easter brunches (and, perhaps, a few bunny tail sightings).

But algebra enthusiasts and frustrated math teachers everywhere can also rejoice. Your time is now. Your influence unquestionable. Your efforts appreciated.

If you follow every soft holiday of national days, weeks, and months – and I do, because what’s life without whimsy? – April officially marks National Mathematics Awareness Month.

If you weren’t aware before, be aware now: math exists. Now you know.

Let’s be honest. Proofs and slogging through trig homework sours a lot of people on mathematics. Even with word problems illustrating endless real world applications of integrals and finding the area of awkward shapes, it can sometimes be tough to find the “point” of upper level math if you don’t naturally enjoy it.

To all my grade school math teachers, let me give you a little something back in thanks for making statistics and budgeting a breeze.

I won’t talk about why math is important. I won’t even point out how the fact that you have access to calculators and other fancy computers would be useless if you didn’t have enough math to know how to punch in the numbers or which operations to use in the first place. I won’t even point out the cognitive benefits of doing math problems (but there is a reason I still calculate temperatures between Fahrenheit and Celsius in my head).

What I will say is math is pretty cool. Some rando in the newspaper said it, so it must be true.

In all seriousness, mathematics is up there in one of the most fascinating – no bias here – developments of human civilization. (Jury’s still out on dolphins; they seem more concerned with philosophy than with the descriptive disciplines.)

Math is not only a genius tool of everyday problem solving, it’s a pretty neat way to describe the relationships of things.

We’re so used to it being a basic facet of life – we start off on numbers about as early as we start on letters and sounds, but as you can probably guess, math wasn’t a big factor in prehistoric life. In fact, the earliest evidences of counting dates to between 20,000 and 35,000 years ago, depending on whom you ask. (For reference, the earliest examples of figurative art are over 40,000 years old.)

Before that, it was pretty much down to an instinctual understanding of more or less. One beast? Pretty good odds of dinner tonight. Beasts plural in a big-looking bunch? Time to turn around and look for rabbit.

Math trails behind art and visual representation, and even writing, in history (so you can thank your arts and humanities teachers for introducing you to the very heart of human existence). Math seems to have popped up with agriculture and settled cities. Land measurements, determining the feasibility of current grain stores to feed a population of 100 for three months, and the need to collect taxes would all naturally require a more sophisticated system than counting up how many arrow tips you still have.

Arithmetic and geometry began independently in different places around the ancient world, though the Mesopotamians seem to have been the first starting perhaps in the third millennium. In that golden age of mathematical development in the medieval Islamic world we get our modern standard numerals, algebra, and the creation of trigonometry as its own discipline.

Still, in some ways math’s extent was relatively simple compared to today’s calculus (which Isaac Newton is often credited with illuminating). It was also still largely algorithmic – meaning the problems were written out as steps and sometimes with justifications, much like proofs. Symbolic math, with familiar looking plus/minus signs and format with the solution on one side of an equal sign, didn’t take firm hold until the 14th and 15th centuries.

So if you do the math, the manipulation of measurements and numbers for sophisticated problem-solving and complex ways of describing the world around us is actually a pretty cool development, and in some ways a pretty recent one.

I can’t make you like proofs anymore than you can make me care about football. But if you ever have to slog through any complex math again, maybe this will take some of the bitterness out of it. At least you’re suffering through proof of human accomplishment.