It may or may not surprise you to learn that I generally did very well in math throughout school. Maybe I just have a knack for logic and thinking in the abstract. I distinctly remember in grade 4 when my teacher brought in another student from another class (I think he was in grade 7), because grade 4 math was too easy for me. He tutored me on long division, if I recall correctly, while the rest of the class worked on memorizing their multiplication tables.
And while I don’t have my transcripts handy, I believe my final grade in first-year calculus in university was somewhere over 90 percent. I think it was a 92. It probably helped tremendously that I was able to spend all of grade 12 learning university level calculus; that’s because I was part of an accelerated program in high school that condensed five years of math (grades 8 through 12) into four years.
Taking the Write Angle
Perhaps it is with some curiosity that I make my living today as a freelance writer. I’ve never even approached any career that is even tangentially related to math, at least not directly. I’m not an economist, an accountant, a statistician or anything of the sort. Instead, my days consist of stringing together words in an effort to inform and entertain.
And yet, even to this day, I love math. I still do.
We use math each and every day, even if we are not consciously aware of it. From composing the perfect Instagram photo using the rule of thirds to figuring out how we can double the recipe for an extra large batch of chocolate chip cookies, math is everywhere. Famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson used math to calculate the specifics of Manhattanhenge. It’s because of math that we have smartphones and electric cars and microwave ovens.
A Waste of Time?
There are people who will tell you it’s a waste of time to study the quadratic equation. How is it applicable to their everyday lives? “I’m glad I learned about parallelograms instead of how to do taxes,” they’ll say. “It’s really come in handy this parallelogram season.”
If you’re thinking only in terms of direct application and practicality, you’re missing the point entirely. Society as a whole benefits from having an educated population, because an educated population is more likely to think critically, creatively and logically.
It’s Only Logical
Logic. Maybe that’s why I love math so much. I’m sure the situation gets far more complex and nuanced at higher levels beyond my level of understanding, but I’ve always appreciated how unambiguous math can be. With proper notation, it can be very clear what you’re trying to express.
(A x B) + C results in a completely different interpretation than A x (B + C). It’s clear. It’s logical.
Language, by comparison, can be remarkably ambiguous… which is both a great strength and an incredible weakness. If I say that a certain rule applies to blue cars and trucks, am I referring to (blue cars) and (trucks), meaning trucks of all colors, but only cars that are blue? Or am I referring to (blue cars) and (blue trucks)? You see how using the parentheses from math could really help clear up this ambiguity?
I encounter a similar kind of troubling situation with slashes. In the product specifications page for a new smartphone, it might list the available colors as space grey/alpine white. From a “common sense” point of view, we can understand this as space grey and alpine white. The way the slashes are used, however, can theoretically lead us to space grey white and space alpine white.
In writing, sometimes I’m tempted to add some spaces in their for clarity (space grey / alpine white), but that’s technically incorrect even if it’s a little clearer visually.
Words, Words, Words…
It’s unpopular to love math, but there are just as many people who might say that taking the time to analyze Shakespeare is just as much a waste of time. What’s more, many people will wear this lack of understanding, knowledge or skill — of math especially — proudly, almost like a badge of honor. Why?
I’m not alone in my confusion either. Perform a quick Google search for “pride in ignorance” and you’ll yield some 21 million search results. Most of these lead to articles and forums asking why some people “seem to be proud of their ignorance.” Because it’s not “cool” to love math and Shakespeare? Because it means you’re a nerd?
If that’s the case, then by all means, go ahead and call me a nerd. I love language, because it plays such an integral part of both my personal and my professional life. I love how it can be used to express so much and yet leave so much more open to interpretation. I love the interplay of precision and creativity. Because “poetry, beauty, romance, love… are what we stay alive for.”
And math made it possible for me to share these words with you now.