Saturday, September 4, 2010

What's the point of maths?

I was listening to a thought-provoking iTunes-U last week: What is science for? (John Sulston, John Harris and comments from Richard Dawkins, 2008). iTunes-U is full of fantastic, free material for the mind from top 50 universities. It got me thinking about what maths is for.

I was one of those kids who studied away at maths but never quite "got" it. I am by no means innumerate (especially by today's standards!). I could apply the rote-learning recipes and get the right answer - but there was no creativity or fundamental grasp of the subject. I'm not sure whether that's just my brain or bad teaching, as I later found I could handle logic in words (Latin and formal symbolic logic) very well.

I was working with Paul building a rectangular fence panel for a garden last week using basic trig, and that got me thinking: this new Project Maths teaching. What do ordinary people take away from maths teaching and use in their lives afterwards? This is my list:

  • Compound interest = why you should try to save and avoid debt.
  • Pythagoras and the square on the hypotenuse = how to make a rectangular dressage arena.
  • Compound numbers = doing rough mental calculations to be sure what the calculator says is accurate.
  • Ratios = resizing graphics correctly for design
  • Areas and speeds = getting the right tractor speed and herbicide concentration to destroy creeping thistles without murdering anything you didn't mean to.
  • Percentages = beastly VAT and business forecasting/cash flow
  • Statistics 101 = always read the original research paper, look at the sample selection and size, and the questions that were actually asked.  Remember that statistics is the most political of sciences, and not really a branch of maths at all...

I would love to know what else people still use from all those years of perseverance. What was it that I missed? I heard a great maths teaching interview between Tomás Mac Eochagáin of Griffith College Dublin and Senator David Norris on Newstalk's The Right Hook that I recommend a listen to...


  1. Never understood trigonometry at school but have spent my 30 years since using it - both plane and speherical - for Navigation and surveying - land and sea...

    best way to learn, understand and appreciate is to use and then teach

  2. I was one of those lucky people who had a wonderful maths teacher and it was my favourite subject at school. I went on to do honours maths at university, in a joint Computer Science / Hons Maths degree. So, maybe I'm not one of your "ordinary people".

    I don't work in the area any more, but for me, maths is everywhere, in everything. I use it all the time.

    And I never buy a lottery ticket. Though my least favourite maths topic, probability taught me that much ;-)