Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Math Love

I love math. I really do. What I can never understand is why so many people hear the word "mathematics" and make a face of absolute disgust. Math is the controlled art of problem-solving. Yes. I said art. But I also said controlled. There are laws, rules, theorems, and very few exceptions. After learning the appropriate methods, one is able to solve a huge variety of problems.

I like the mathematical approach to problem solving. Read the problem. Reread the problem. Examine and note the information provided by the problem. What is given or defined? What are you solving for? Recall what methods you already know and apply them to the problem.

Bingo - solution found.

Check your work. Check your work again. Check your work one more time...wait, really? I fully support the double-check method. The triple-check method though, that was required in 6th grade math. I am pretty sure it was only instituted so our tests would take more time and the teacher got more of a break. Third time's the charm though, so go ahead, triple-check if you really want to.

Math is black and white. There is (almost always) one correct answer. If there is not an answer, there is a reason. There is a cause: the denominator is zero, the limit approaches infinity, the function is oscillating, etc. Right and wrong are obvious in mathematics. There is very little gray.

Imagine if every problem encountered in life was similar to a math problem. We could apply known methods, follow rules, prove theorems and, ultimately, come to the correct solution. How much more straight-forward would life be? When I first thought about this, it sounded great. The more I reflect on it though, I have to ask myself - what's wrong with a little gray? As much as I wish my problems (and the entire world's problems) were easier to solve, a life ruled by theorems and principles does not seem like much of a life at all.

I'll take the beauty mathematics offers: symmetrical parabolas extending to infinity, hyperbolic trigonometric functions, the Fibonacci sequence appearing in nature, dictating the growth pattern of pine cones or the number of petals on a flower.
I'll take it's mind-boggling ideas of definite sums for ever-expanding sequences, irrational numbers like e and π, positive infinity and negative infinity, and the often-overlooked yet brilliant, integer 0.
I'll take it's problem-solving approach for what it's worth, an organized and methodical way to tackle difficult problems.

I will take all these elements and combine them - sum them if you will - with free will, personal opinion, faith, family, friendship and laughter - a whole heap of laughter. And the sum will be brilliant. It will be something extraordinary. Because to me, that is what mathematics is (whether you believe it or not) and that is certainly what life is (you better believe that).

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