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The Necessity Of Mathematics
blaisepascal
Blake Stacey posted an essay on The Necessity of Mathematics which I feel is worth reading, even, or even especially, if you aren't particularly mathematically inclined.

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i grew up wanting to be a scientist. i tinkered with chemistry, electricity, observational astronomy, and simple optics. when i started college, my chosen major was physics. naturally, higher mathematics were required.

and when i took beginning calculus, i hit a wall. i just could not grok the underlying concepts. i took three different basic calculus courses, with three different textbooks and three different teachers, and failed every one of them miserably. my brain just isn't capable of understanding math on that level; i'm like a dyslexic person who can't comprehend the difference between the letters "d" and "b".

this was the first time in my life i'd ever failed a class, and the first time i'd ever run up against something i couldn't understand no matter how hard i tried. it left me with a phobia of the math i did understand - to this day, simple everyday arithmetic makes me faintly anxious, and i'm very bad at remembering strings of numbers (i have to activate "phone info" on my cell phone every time i want to tell someone my number - i can never remember it).

so where does this leave me, as an intelligent person who is still, in spite of everything, interested in science?



The article isn't arguing that (the generic) you are stupid for not knowing math. What it mainly talks about, with examples, is how mathematics, and mathematical reasoning, is vitally necessary to science, and how scientists haven't yet figured out how to communicate science to non-mathematical folk.

What I did when I ran into integral calculus (which I don't do very well, and was the core of the only math course I ever failed) was to realize that there is a very large field of maths out there which are considered just as advanced but trigger other parts of the brain.

If you find "d" and "b" hard, you'd hate Hamiltonian mechanics, which is all about relationships between "generalized coordinates" qi and their "conjugate momenta" pi. I'm not dyslexic and I'll admit to having trouble keeping my p's and q's straight.

it was differential calculus that stopped me - i never got to integral. oddly enough, i was perfectly okay at things like solid geometry, which are considered just as difficult, if not more so. i just don't seem to handle highly abstract concepts very well, but give me something concrete, something i can visualize (or conceptualize with any other sense), and i'm fine.

the problem is, i still love science, but i'm deficient in the tools they now say are required for understanding it. it's very frustrating.

i'm not at all dyslexic - i'm the oppposite, if anything. (Alex gets it from his father; they both occasionally need to be told, "no, your other left!") i might have trouble with my "p"s and "q"s, but not for spatial reasons ;-)

I've trained myself to be able to read just about anything printed in English -- upside down, backwards, mirror imaged, etc. It makes it a pain to do puzzles where the answer is at the bottom of the page reversed or upside down because I'm likely to glance at it and read it while working on the puzzle. I've been known to push on a door for several seconds in frustration before I realize that the letters "PUSH" on the glass door are meant to be read from the other side. So formulas with lots of p's and q's tend to be a bit... confusing.

i've always been able to read upside-down and mirror-image (backwards takes a little more concentration). it came in handy when i was in school, because i was always getting sent to the principal's office or the psychiatrist's office or the guidance office, and they'd always have a bunch of paperwork about me on their desks. they never did figure out that i could read what was on the papers ;-)

but i don't confuse mirror-image letters; i seem to auto-correct for orientation and context.



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