The Purpose of Math[1][1] | Physics & Mathematics | Mathematics


An essay written with never enough thanks to my mother

In what follows I address mathematics itself²not really any specific branch or application of it. I¶m looking more at its nature, its purpose and its meaning. I put a ton of stress on the mathematician, the one to whom mathematics is most important, and I try to shed some light on his motivations and his feelings when it comes to mathematics²not only for himself as a mathematician, but also for himself as an individual. I want to give my thanks to the professors who were kind enough to lend some of their time to sit down with me and answer my questions. It was really helpful. I learned a lot and I hope they enjoyed it at least a little bit. I did. I use ³he´ for convenience. I¶m not a chauvinist or any of that kind of thing. I just don¶t want to waste my time trying not to step on any eggshells and end up butchering the flow of my thoughts.

In the beginning there was no time but God was a mathematician (and also a poet) so to get everything rolling He assumed, ³Let there be light, and let it have a speed such that there are none that are faster,´ and so God imposed the first physical standard, a constant, which we nowrecognize symbolically as c. God was pretty full of himself (and not without reason) so He proposed a great many things without explaining them to anyone. The discovery and understanding of such proposals as God made to create and govern the universe is the driving force behind mathematics. A

mathematician works to explain God because He doesn¶t explain Himself. In doing so the mathematician must also explain himself and even his explanations of God.

So one day this guy asks me what I¶m going to school for and I tell him, ³Math,´ and then he says, ³Oh, so you¶re going to teach?´ He isn¶t the first person to ever ask me this, he isn¶t even the twentieth person to ever ask me this. You could say I¶m used to it so I don¶t really have to think about it and I know what I¶m talking about when I tell him, ³Not necessarily, as a mathematician my primary objective is to learn. First I must teach myself. Then and only then might I teach others.´ After the silence that follows, I still have the guy¶s attention, so I proceed, ³My aim is to translate and improve the understanding of phenomenathrough an economical use of symbols and notations.First, I work to understand the nature of events and ideas. Once I succeed, my next task is forming a practical interpretation of what I¶ve discoveredso that everyone I tell about itunderstands what¶s going on too, they can know what the heck I¶m talking about and seewhat I¶m saying in as little time as possible. ³My explanations are concise, logical and easy to follow, nonsense not included. My translations reflect the extent of my understanding²through which the phenomenais reduced to something as straightforward and obvious as why the chicken crossed the road. Each consequence should come as no surprise and one is assured of the validity of the result. Mathematics is what allows me to do all this.It is my weapon of choice. My dogma. My pride.´ At this point my soul is unleashedso I start totell the guy everything and I hope he forgives me if I go a little overboard.

³Sometimes I¶m an animal tamer. I domesticate forces of nature, whipping them into shape«a shape that¶s more natural for you and me to wrap our heads around. A shape that makes it all less unruly and easier to handle. Then you can look at it all tame and civil, simplified and under control and you see it a little more closely, you see how it works on a basic fundamental level. Then maybe you can harness it and use it toward some end. ³Sometimes I¶m a sculptor who deals with the stones of abstract ideas and concepts.I chisel them down into something fine and concrete, refine them so they are distinct and recognizable.I polish it up, make it evident, comprehensive to see how they all fit together in the big picture and how they relate to each other. ³My final product consists only of what is necessary to understand. Its components are arranged in a simple and elegant manner that warrants further manipulation and study with much less hassle, lessrigmarole. ³Sometimes I¶m a bold explorer of unknown frontiers uncertain of success« often convinced all is in vain. I¶m a student of the art of perseverance, of seeing things through to the very end and finding ways around obstacles. I¶m paving a way for others to follow (if anyone will) cutting away at the wild vines and branches and pushing aside or blasting through the longstandingboulders (when I can!) that get in the way of people seeing the truth and getting to it. ³Sometimes I¶m an artist, looking at it from all the different angles and aspects, in different lights, way up close face to face with the details and far back from many steps away in general. I try to put it all into perspective for everyone and share it with them. My medium is mathematics²it¶s how I express myself, my truth. Thing is though, I wouldn¶t express myself with mathematics unless I thought what I had to express was worth expressing in the first place. Unless I thought my truth was the truth, or something close to it.

³What¶s funny about thatis the math itself is what tells me if what I have is worth expressing²the same math I use to find the truth is the math I use to verify its validity, and the math I use to express it. With math I can find, verify and express truth, all at once with one thing. ³I untangle the riddles woven into the fabric of the universe, then tie them back together in neat decent little knots that are a cinch to tie and untie again. If I¶m doing things correctly I make learning about the universe a lot easier. I use math to learn about the universe myself, too« not just to describe it to others. But through describing it I learn about it because without a description of it, what do I know about it? I only know as much about a thing as the extent to which I¶m able to describe it. How then, do I learn? How do I come to know? ³Experience alone can answer that. To get to know about something I must practice describing it. So I practice mathematics. It¶s my method of description. Through it I learn and after that, hopefully teach.´ I stop for a moment to catch my breath, not to mention I realize I¶m talking this guy¶s ear off. But as it turns out he happens to be really polite, curious and eager to hear more and I guess he must have noticed how eager I am too to talk about itso after all this he asks me, ³Do you think math explains the world?´ ³Math itself doesn¶t explain the world, people do. Some people use math. Some people don¶t. Everyone has their reasons. Those who use anything to explain the world do it because they think it¶s right, or at least the most right or right enough for the time being. ³For me, mathematics is the best way of doing it. It¶s the most efficient, accessible and tried and true method. I like math for its way of settling arguments and solving problems, even across a language barrier. It¶s respected and irrefutable, can¶t be bought or swayed. Once

somethingis proven mathematically correct or incorrect, it¶s more or less written in stone and that¶s that. ³Don¶t get me wrong, math isn¶t perfect and isn¶t always the say all end all. It can¶t be used to explain absolutely everything« but I think it¶s as close as youcan get.I mean, it can explain as much as you can with it and it¶s the most objective possible available means of doing so, at least I think so. ³Sometimes you have to use what you have and do all you can with it even if it isn¶t perfect. You can¶t waste all your time trying to perfect your means, you won¶t have any time left for achieving your ends! Math¶s good enough for me. ³I¶m quoting Courant here, µMathematics as an expression of the human mind reflects the active will, the contemplative reason and the desire for aesthetic perfections.¶ Something is perfect when everything is accounted for. Mathematics attempts, desires if you will, to account for everything. ³Math itself isn¶t perfect, but it makes other things seem as though they are. After something is expressed mathematically, it takes on a new clean sense of order and consistency. It has a discernible nature. It¶s clearer, there are insights to be had into it, implications to be made and new conclusions to be drawn. It¶s almost like this lens that clarifies the world or putsan x-ray on reality. ³As everything is accounted for and described, the mathematical expression of it approaches perfection. Through accounting for everything and expressing it mathematically, you can see just how perfect the whole thing is, how it just« works.What¶s happening and why²you see that there is a reason for it and you see what that reason is.

³For example, what before was a simple object falling to the ground becomes a specific instance of many possible events, depending on initial conditions and environmental factors, all of which can be accounted for, registered, and given their own name and place in the scheme. You can plot the trajectory and the rates of change and you have it« account for everything until you have it²a blueprint for the falling object, an equation« and the equation is that object falling to the ground. ³What¶s so great about having an equation is now you can take it home with you. With the equation you can see that falling object when you¶re lying in bed, in the shower or in the car. You can bring it with you wherever you want and look at it, study it, show it to other people. ³The event is captured, idea and all, faultless and forever, frozen, crystallized in mathematical description, established and unchanging«That¶s what you hope for anyway, what you try to do. ³You see, mathematics is another one of the many things thattries. If it didn¶t try it wouldn¶t matter, it wouldn¶t grow. It would be forgotten and it would die. Unless it was perfect, and it didn¶t have to try« but it isn¶t perfect (and probably never will be) so it has to keep trying, but more importantly it wants to keep trying, to strive for perfection. It wants to get better and realize more about itself and what it can do. Math persists.Math is resolute, here to stay.It¶s in it for the long haul. ³But all thistrying could never take place without the mathematician. It¶s the mathematician that keeps mathematics alive by making it try, by being the vessel for its pursuit of perfection. Mathematicians are the spirit and vitality of mathematics. ³A mathematician learns first of all that he can act. He can do things that effect outcomes. He can make choices²he has to make choices if he¶s going to end up getting anywhere at all.

³This is when a mathematician starts to think. He contemplates what he has, how he got it, where he is and how he got there. He thinks about what he wants, what he needs, why he needs it and what he¶s going to do with it, where he¶s going to go, what he¶s going to do when he gets there, how he¶s going to do it.He imagines the possibilities and what each one implies« his math helps him hammer it all out. ³Some of it he figures out as he goes, just letting the math carry himalong like a leaf in the wind and he doesn¶t really know what he¶s going to get, where he¶s going to end up. He has to let it take its course and he¶ll find out when he gets there.Some of it he might already know or have a hunch about and he just uses the math to affirm it and show him more clearly how the conclusion is reached. ³He uses math to organize his thoughts and string them together in such a way that he can keep track of themall better, he can see where everything is with respect to everything else, he can reference and back check what he¶s already done. ³For him math is a means of certainty and determination to continue on with confidence and hope.He is encouraged by it.It gives him the eyes to look ahead and see the light at the end of the tunnel as well as being the torch he uses to guide himself through the darkness. He can¶t see the light at the end at first, he can only imagine it« a solution, an answer somewhere in the mist.He trusts mathematics to take him there and help him find it. ³As he trudges alongdown the tunnel with his torch in hand and maybe a bit of his owngood ol¶ home-brewed intuition, the light down at the end starts getting a little bigger. He¶s writing a map too, a key for himself and others to reference should they pass through the same tunnel. He gets closer and closer and his certainty grows as the light grows and the light grows as his certainty grows until at last all he can see is the light.He¶s surrounded by it. It¶s a part of

him. He¶s made it out of the tunnel, and now he knows what¶s on the other side and he knows how to get there. He has to share it with someone.´

My apt and well-mannered listener, who is so patient with my fits of poetic passion, chimes in, ³How does he share it?´ ³His means is mathematics.´ ³Why mathematics?´ ³Because his faith lies in its authority.´ ³What sort of authority does mathematics have to him?´ ³Mathematics has as much authority as the men who use it grant to it.They use it as a basis for determining the worth of theirown thoughts and that of other¶s. It¶s an unbiased scale, a pre-established standard of sound andacceptable reasoning. You know, a second is a second it doesn¶t matter who you talk to.Math is the accepted language of not only scientific description, but also justification. ³Mathematics allows men to trust their fellows¶ perceptions as they would their own and to come to terms with each other. It gives them a firm footing at either side of theirgreat sea of misunderstanding. Where they would otherwise be standing with troubled eyes anddoubtful stares, they can gaze across calm and prepared, knowing they have a chance to meet an understanding, to be in agreement with each other²it all seems within reach.They have math on their side. ³With it they can each start building their own bridges using the same tools and the same materials with the same goal in mind until they meet in the middle and the completed bridge spans all the way across the seato both sides.

³Through mathematics, and the authority thereof, Man is immortal. His knowledge is safe and stored, collected and catalogued, passed down, cherished and improved upon. Man¶s faith in mathematics keeps it alive.His faith is in mathematics becauseit works. It¶s like a crazy old engineering professor of mine once told the class about this method of solving a vibrations problem, ³Some people might not like it, but IT WORKS!´ And he was right²it does work. I pause for breath andthere¶s a long silence where neither of us says anything and I can tell the guy is thinking about something. I half-expect him to wish me a good afternoon and walk away when he says, ³Golly, it sure feels nice to know that there¶s at least some sort of a way to go about agreeing on things and the right way to do them! Kind of gives you a warm and cozy feeling thinking about it like that« ³I was wondering, I hope it doesn¶t too sound silly« What do you think came first, the mathematics or the man? I mean, has math always been around and man is just one of the creatures that can figure it out? Or is math only around because man came along and invented it? I laugh, ³Well it seems to me as though one was born out of the other and vice versa, kind of like the chicken and the egg« almost like they were woven together, telling one another¶s story, bound to each other¶s fate in some deep kind of cosmic unity« but I might just be a spiritual man« Anyway, it would do well to consider if men have innately mathematical minds, or if the universe itselfis mathematically arranged. ³Man is a product of the universe. From the very start he thinks mathematically to come to terms and cope with reality. His brain organizes what he sees by size and shape, position and displacement« it interprets motion and continuity.Time is another big one« ³His thought process stems from a certain belief« but it¶s much stronger than a belief« more like this basic built-in human knowledge that¶s unquestionable and can¶t be ignored«

knowledge that there¶s at least some kind order in the world,that there has to be. Man believes the world hasthis identifiable arrangement and he takes on the job of identifyingit so he can work with it, live among it and perhaps even benefit from it or help others.It¶s this belief that forms the foundation of any sane man¶s mind.Things have to make sense so Manhas to make sense out of them, and there has to be a way of doing it. He craves assurance. He is desperate in seeking explanation. What does he find? ³Patterns. Repetition. Consistency in cause and effect.Man has a sense that the universe is mathematical so he does what he can to think mathematically about it by developing his own mathematics to try and match that of the universe. ³What it boils down to is mathematics came before man, but only in the sense that man believes mathematics has always been around since the beginning kind of running the show or providing the track for the show to run on so to speak. Man thinks there¶s something to be figured out and that it¶s all figure-it-out-able²that¶s mathematics for you. ³The mathematics Man knows and develops is his best imitation of the mathematics that governs the universe« it¶s an approximation of what he believes to be the truth, a semblance of the assumptions and proposals made by God that dictate the functioning of the universe.´ My listener is a little taken aback but retains his composure, ³You make it sound like a pretty big deal« is a knowledge of mathematics necessary for Man¶s survival?´ ³I don¶t think animals have knowledge of it, not in the same sense as Man at least, and they get along alright. Theirs is more of a habit-based instinctual kind of surviving though, something that comes straight from the impulse and behavior doesn¶t change much unless the environment changes in any dramatic way.

³Man¶s life is defined by discoveries and new and different ways of thinking, changing habits and evolution. He¶s more conscious of subtleties. He has a greater sensitivity to changes in his environment and a higher degree of self- and environmental-control. ³Man is concerned with more than just what is necessary for survival. He has time to be curious and he makes good use of it.He¶s curious, but unlike curious animals he¶s also bold. Where most animals tend toward fearfulness and timidity in the presence of the unknown, Man steps forward and conquers. Animals display a less greater need to discover the unknown. They¶re satisfied with what they have, what¶s already been conquered. Their thoughts hardly stray beyondthe realm of what¶s essential. ³On the other hand, after essential needs are met, Man dreams of more. Man has always wondered, µWhat else?¶ Man started wondering µWhat else?¶ and he just couldn¶t get over it, he needed to know more. After long enough hecouldn¶t keep it inside anymore and he had to find out somehow because he was so sure that there just had to be more, like he just knew it was out there, somewhere... µWhat is it?¶ µHow do I get to it?¶ He had to try but he didn¶t know how or where and he needed help he needed confirmation. He was uncertain so he started talking about it, about the unknown, speculating, arguing, ironing it all out. It became important to him. Hestarts writing it down.There¶s talk of µsomething really big going on here«¶ ³Man¶s written word is a confession of how importanta subject is to him. The most refined and accessible form of the written word is mathematics. Man needs math to investigate the unknown and to document the importance of what he finds there. This documentation and the sense that what is being documented is important is the central characteristic that distinguishes men from animals.

³It carries mankind¶s collective knowledge through time where it¶s preserved for posterity so it can be looked at and used and improved without anyone having to go through all the trouble of figuring it out again. Math expedites evolution by saving mankindvaluable timethat can be used tofind out new things and to improve on knowledge that already exists« it¶s like every person with each generation comes with new pre-installed knowledge, an update on the previous version. The fundamental knowledge changes, grows.Math is the boat that cradlesManas he idles down the endless stream of time, generation after generation. ³In short, Man doesn¶t need mathematics to survive in a strictly physical sense but he does need it to maintain and improve his status as µMan¶, that which separates him from the animals. ³Amazing! I never knew mathematics was so important!´ I blush at my listener¶s flattery. ³I¶m glad to be helping you realize.´ ³Thanks a lot! I have another question if you don¶t mind.´ ³Not at all.´ ³Mathematics is an integral part of humanity and plays a major role in its sustainment and evolution, right? Does this mean everyone deep down is a mathematician?´ ³I don¶t think the words, µhuman¶ and µmathematician¶ are interchangeable if that¶s what you¶re asking«Anyone uses math but not everyone is a mathematician. ³For instance, painters must learn to mix colors in the appropriate amounts in order to create whatever colors they need. The painter will observe the relative sizes of the paint blobs he has on his pallet and the color that results from mixing them. It¶s all really a matter of fractions, ratios. There¶s some trial and error at first as you get a feel for it, mixing it together slowly, a

little bit at a time. You might mess up and have to keep adding more paint until you get the right ratio but after a while it just becomes second-nature. ³As the painter gets accustomed to the physics of paint-mixing, it¶s reduced to a quick, mechanical process and he doesn¶t waste so much paint because his brain has it figured out and stored to memory what kind of paint blob ratio he needs. ³For someone like a mathematician it¶s a little different though, but still very much the same. Confronted with something like painting, a mathematician figures out what comes second nature to the painter, the ratios, to what extent each color changes another color depending on how much of each one is being mixed. The mathematician¶s second-nature is to think about it mathematically whereas the painter doesn¶t necessarily think about it mathematically, but he still uses math whether he¶s aware of it or not²it¶s involved, inherent in the nature of what he does.The mathematician just spells it all out. ³What it comes down to is the difference between the painter and the mathematician istheir terms²a matter of differences in the words they use to describe things. There are some things better left to the painter to describe and some things better left to the mathematician.´

By now my listener is so amazed and fascinated by the greatness and the importance of mathematics and what it means to be a mathematician that his eyes are glistening with wonder like shiny little Christmas-lights and tinsel on the tree with presents under it the morning of and he can¶t help but exclaim, ³Wow! Gee whiz! I sure am grateful for mathematics! The first mathematician must have been a real genius!´ There¶s a little more I have to tell the guy so I disagree with him and say, ³It¶s more likely he was a fool.´

³Huh?´ ³He probably didn¶t know what he was doing.´ ³How so?´ ³My guess is he was stubborn and proud, didn¶t take kindly to much advice from anyone. He might¶ve been the kind of person who although he knows something is dangerous he still just goes right ahead and messes with it anyway just to find out what happens. ³It was probably something like where it seemed so obvious to everyone else that what he was doing was hopeless, destined for failure but he just kept on going anyway and people laughed and said behind his back, µHe¶s a fool,¶ or maybe they said it right to his face, µYou¶re a fool,¶ and he probably even felt like a fool himself sometimes«but he worked hard, maybe even got lucky and he never gave up until he finally stumbledon something useful and worthwhile for himself and others. ³Whenever he failed, and it is not unlikely that most of his life consisted of failure, he learned a thing or two from it and he kept going. He knew failure was the best way to learn. He was not daunted by it.A mathematician is made up by his failures. The guy shook his head slowly and sighed, ³Phew, sounds like real serious business, but I still think he must have been a genius« and deep down he probably really cared about people and what they were saying and he really wanted to understand them and to be understood and he wished there was some way for everyone to understand each other« so he dreamed of math. Then he made the dream come true« come to think of it, it probably took two at least to create mathematics, I don¶t think it would serve much purpose for just one person alone, seeing as it¶s a means to communicate ideas.´

³That¶s true, but much of a mathematician¶s time is spent in solitude with his math, until his idea is ready to be shared with the world²this is when he looks the most like a fool« but if he didn¶t spend all that time alone, looking like a fool, preparing it and making it presentable, when he shared it it wouldn¶t be right, because it wasn¶t ready and then he would actually be a fool. ³I see« Do you ever feel like a fool?´ ³I try not to, but sometimes I¶m sure I mightseem foolish, or my peers might think I¶m a little crazy. But it¶s a part of who I am, inseparable from my essence, no matter how foolish I feel or how crazy I seem I could never give it up. ³I get a rush from solving problems, letting math do its thing, because once I get going it¶s like the math takes on a life of its own and my hands are just the vessel, it¶s moving through me and I¶m the intermediary through which truth brings itself to light. ³The feeling is unlike any other known to me« ³The excitement, the high, the µIt¶s working! I¶m getting somewhere with this, I think I¶m on to something!¶ Running through the streets in the crowded city afternoon with nothing but a towel hanging around my waist shouting, µEureka! Eureka!¶ the trail of my footprints wet in the sun on the pavement behind me. It¶s times like those that keep me coming back for more. ³It¶s also what keeps me going when things aren¶t looking sowell, because they certainly don¶t always look too well. It isn¶t all roses. For every peak there¶s a valley and some valleys are a lot worse than others and at times it gets really frustrating when you can¶t climb out of them and you can¶t see if there¶s even a peak at the top where the mountain stops but you know there has to be an end to it so you just keep climbing. You climb forever until you can¶t even feel

it anymore and then you¶re crushed because all around you you realize your way is blocked and you can¶t go any further, you messed up somewhere, took a wrong turn. ³You damn math and you damn yourself for wasting so much time with it.But you get over it. A lot of times with those mountains what you have to realize is that you can always just go start climbing a different mountain, and who knows it might be that the mountains connect somewhere higher up and you can get around whatever was in your way before.´

The guy seemed to have a decent amount of respect for me and especially mathematics by the time I was finished talking with him. He probably wouldn¶t be so quick to think every math student is going to end up being a grade school teacher or an actuary. The importance of math doesn¶t lie so much in its utility or applicability to everyday life. The real mustard is a little deeper than that. It¶s the success of mathematics as a language, its strength to endure through time. The purpose of math is ³oomph´, oomph that lasts and isn¶t too fancy.

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