Bethechange – wym091708
The Beauty of Mathematics
When I was in school, mathematics or maths as we usually shorten the word, was one of my most challenging subjects. I was an average performer, neither failing nor passing with flying colours right across the curriculum. But I was sure of a spinning head each time I was faced with those quadratic equations, geometrical drawings and so on. Each time that happened, which was almost always, I convinced myself that once this ordeal was over, I would stay as far away from the subject as Mars is from Earth. But many years later I realised how the phenomenon was an integral part of everyday life just like the air we breathe, the sunlight that helps us see all those beautiful things, the water we run for when we are thirsty, and so forth.
Every day without exception we talk and do mathematics. We tell the time – in minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years. We count money, whatever currency we use, sometimes in billions and trillions. We tell the distance between places, and the speed of travel. We tell ages of items, animals and people, and sing about them at birthday parties, wishing them many more even when they have had more than enough. We tell durations between points in time. We tell sizes of vessels and pieces of land, weights and prices of food items; we watch our weights with hawkish eyes, and we take our meds in such quantities so many times a day. Every day is maths day; it makes life so easy and we all love it. Or perhaps, love it or hate it, we are completely dependent on it to addiction.
In the world of work, many tasks, even the simplest ones, involve mathematics. Garment construction requires complex mathematical calculations and geometrical projections to produce a certain size garment that fits a particular body structure whatever its shape or size. Everyone has a size, from pencil slim to fully full figure. Farming involves matching the hectarage with the amount of seed, fertilizer, water and labour. Even the depth of ploughing and planting depending on the soil and seed type, moisture content, and so on. Preparing a commercial meal requires exact calculations of inputs and ingredients. And organising an event involves grappling with timeframes, number of participants, amount of supplies required and processes involved. Naturally, rocket science and such other fields are on the other extreme, feats of human ingenuity impossible without the fullest measures of mathematical diet.
Mathematics stays in our faces so much that in some respects we have come to take it for granted. That’s how things are, we ‘whisper’ to our internal selves. In many situations and for many of us, it stays behind the scenes such that on average we do not notice it and therefore might not appreciate it. The tall building from which we work. The roads along which we travel – whether they are ‘simply’ wide and straight or they are narrow and curvy, whether they fly over or ‘fly’ under, they always do so in accordance with mathematical principles. The vehicles that we drive or ride in – whether they are little minis, bullet trains or Concorde planes. Even the ‘simple’ bicycle! The ‘houses’ we live in – whether it’s a thatch hut, a tin shack or a brick-under-tile mansion. The electricity that lights our homes, offices and streets and drives out gadgets. And the gadgets that we use every day – phones, kitchen utensils, computers. The list is endless. All works of mathematics. Human beings have indeed mastered the subject!
But perhaps the greatest work of mathematics of all is creation, performed by the most masterful mathematician of all, the creator him/herself. The wonder of the solar system – the huge masses of matter, that we call planets, suspended in nothing and ever going round and round, and around and around, nonstop at a fixed distance from each other and from the centre. How the earth, for example, is calculated to travel at a certain speed along a certain track in a certain direction and to start all over again at the same spot at the same time every time to effect a year, and to change its tilt at certain points in time every time during its round trip to effect seasons, while at the same time all the time going around at a certain speed to effect day and night. And on it and within it abundant life of various forms, each with various distinguishing characteristics and behaviour, all going on at the same time all the time, and all carefully calculated to complement each other to achieve some equilibrium, most of it invisible to the naked eye.
Within each life form, how it begins, develops and ends. In human beings for example, how the conception project is timed to proceed at a certain pace, all the supplies being brought together in right quantities at the right time to produce a fully formed human being who is ready to eject by a certain time, and to achieve more developmental milestones at specified time points throughout its life time. And in plant life how a maize plant, for example, knows when it’s time to tassel regardless of its height depending on its life circumstances, and to produce the right quantity of seed within its capacity to carry.
Looking at these phenomena, you begin to suspect that there are layers in this mathematics, however it’s called in all those many languages there are in this world. In a lay person’s terms, you could say that there is consumer mathematics, for those who are there simply to benefit from the works of mathematics done by others, usually without even thinking about it in those terms. Then there is interpretational mathematics, for those with enough grey matter to understand and explain the underlying calculations, to see the undergirding connections. Then there is the engineering (not the simple university engineering) mathematics which involves laying those girders that bring about the phenomena that we experience. This is possibly where the DNAs in biological sciences come in. And perhaps finally there is enabling mathematics that built into those girders the mathematical properties to behave that way. In our youthful geography years we used to say the higher you go the cooler it becomes. Similarly the higher you go, or is it the deeper you go, in this mathematical conundrum, the fewer the minds, down to one, the ultimate mathematician (for lack of a better word).
Therein lies the beauty of mathematics. It shapes our lives so much, permeating every nook of it. Yet it is so difficult that it is no field for mere mortals to comprehend let alone manipulate or implement. In fact it is bigger than life itself. No wonder why my head – this little head of mine – used to spin at the sight of it, and (forgivably) still does so with aplomb. But thanks to my newly ‘discovered’ gradations of it, after so many years of pointing a deprecating finger at myself, I now know where I belong. I can freely enjoy the benefits of it all I want without having to flog myself dead for having been so chicken hearted all those many years ago.
Samuel Maruta, August 2017