This week the New York Times ran an op-ed piece on “How to Fall in Love with Math.” I already do love math (though I wish I were better at it) and agreed with the article that more emphasis should be placed on spreading math appreciation. In the sciences, we see the same phenomenon that the author of the piece, Manil Suri, says he frequently encounters: the collective groan whenever numbers are put up in lecture or a formula is written out on the board.
There is resistance to math, sometimes strong aversion, despite math being something Suri says “we all crave.” If we crave it, why do we not embrace it more often? I think part of our resistance to math is developed out of constant avoidance. Oftentimes introductory lecture courses and seminar talks present formulas or mathematical models while not delving into the details. When lecturers present something while saying “This is what the formula looks like, but what is really important is what we get out of it,” or “the derivation is not important as long as you understand the concept,” we have put math on a level below the conclusions it allows us to make.
Many of us can talk about the trajectory of a moving baseball, the predictable and beautiful patterns of light waves through a prism, or the horrifying speed of infections spreading through a population, but too few of us can prove and justify these ideas with formula derivations and numbers. We focus on a few important mathematical “solutions”, not questioning where they came from or whether they have been logically explained. Over time the more people who persistently present math while neglecting to explain the details encourage audiences (you, me, our society) to not bother questioning whether we understand why the conclusion was made. We jump to conclusions made by the few of us really passionate about math and are likely sacrificing a greater depth of understanding.
In some respects, I think math is like the inside of our car engine. We can be told how it works and when we drive it we know that it works but when something goes wrong and we open the hood, we find a strange world of things connected in ways we didn’t expect or a system setup that is different than our imagination had led us to believe. I think if we look at the math and figure out how the engine works we can not only have a greater appreciation for the roads we can drive but we can also open up the possibility to make changes, repairs or create new concepts that otherwise would be overlooked.