Thinking about the function of math

So what I’m thinking about is math. Nothing too deep here. When I was in middle school, I was enrolled in this program in Florida called MEGSSS. I don’t remember what that stood for, and I don’t know if the program still exists. What I remember is that it was a way for so-called gifted students (gifted at kicking myself in the ass) to finish high school pre-algebra, algebra 1, and geometry. I don’t know how standard it is, but when I was going through school, the sequence was:

  1. pre-algebra
  2. algebra 1 (or this could be broken into algebra 1a and algebra 1b)
  3. geometry
  4. algebra 2
  5. trigonometry/analytic geometry (or you could take pre-calculus at this point)
  6. calculus (I think they only offered AP at my high school)

Anyway, yeah it would’ve been advantageous for me to have stuck with MEGSSS back in middle school, but… I don’t remember why I didn’t. I not only dropped back a year (which was still considered a great thing, and would’ve allowed me to start geometry in high school), but I dropped back all the way to the regular-kids track. I remember that it was mildly embarrassing and ego-squeezing because most of my friends were smart kids whose affluent parents made sure their offspring had their shit together (and are probably all engineers or something right now). But why did it happen? I honestly do not remember having any difficulty with a concept. I know I was absent from school a lot, and careless about homework. I don’t remember studying at all until college.

But I had to apply to even get into that program, so what was I doing? It’s all foggy, but I know I must’ve had an interest and/or aptitude in the first place, back in elementary school. Gosh, now that I think of it, I even took Algebra 2 twice. Who does that? Okay. Fast forward a little — when I finally made it to trig & analytic geometry in senior year. I loved it. Was it the teacher? The triangles? The abstractness? Something to do with my age? I have no idea, but it was great!

Then I saw Good Will Hunting and A Beautiful Mind, movies that at the time were old to everybody else. Growing up, my family didn’t watch many movies. We only saw what was on broadcast TV, which, to me, seemed to always be Batman or something equally uninteresting. But at the end of high school, when I was studying trig, is when my now step-father entered the picture. What the hell has that got to do with anything? Well, he’s a movie guy, so living with him meant I ended up seeing tons of movies I’d never seen before. Being a naive ass teenager, man, I was so crazy about those two movies. I’m not sure if I was infatuated with John Nash, or if I wanted to be him. And Good Will Hunting? Don’t get me started.

So my interest in math was growing. I had been introduced to a couple of philosophical concepts from my personal reading, and also from humanities classes, and this contributed to the math fascination. What is infinity? What is time? What is change? Is there one answer to all of our questions, or multiple? I mean, if philosophy can fuck you with definitions and endless questioning, math can do that too. What, I ask, is a number? I don’t know if many people ask that sort of thing, because numbers are part of an idea we work with constantly — but even in the fairly low-level math I deal with now, we still specify among types of numbers: real, imaginary, natural, etc. Oh, it’s awesome.

I got interested in math partly because it seemed like a language. (Now that I know just a little baby bit about programming, the language thing seems even more apparent to me.) I thought maybe I’d like to get into math in college, and I got a book called, “Letters to a Young Mathematician.” I don’t remember who wrote it, and I actually didn’t finish it. I’m sure it’s somewhere in my mom’s house still. I was really into that book because the author would talk about the beauty and elegance and fascination that I was just beginning to perceive.

Aaaannnnd… six years later, I went back to college, started my first semester with a trigonometry class. Awesome. The unit circle. Pre-calculus I didn’t like because it was taught mostly as a long review, because I didn’t learn how I’d be applying anything to calculus, and also because my professor assigned an ONLINE TEXT BOOK, which just doesn’t work for me. Whatever.

But over this previous summer, which is kind of when I started writing, calculus was just… tickling something in my brain. If I’d had more time, I would’ve read some philosophy books and the Bible, and pondered some questions for fun. The class was by no means easy — I worked at it every single day, including weekends, and only got a B — but it was fun. It was just cool. It really intimidates me to think someone made this up (or discovered it, if you think of it a different way), but it’s just so, so cool. I loved the analytic geometry side of it, and even the Riemann sum. It’s just conceptually so interesting. Don’t ask me why I like to envision 3-dimensional shapes, break them apart, and ask questions, but I do. And the practical arm of it doesn’t even appeal to me that much.

In humanities classes, especially the modern art class I took, we’d talk about art’s function or lack thereof. Does art have a social function necessarily? Does it communicate? Should art be created for its own sake?

Well, I don’t care much about that. Art history is an extremely interesting subject, but it’s subjective, and therefore, never ending. But I apply the question to mathematics: Should we do math for its own sake, or only for practical purposes?

I can’t remember my view on this as a kid, but nowadays, you’d never hear me ask, “When will I ever use this?” I’m only interesting in using math in the sense that using it is necessary to remembering it and getting better at it. Unlike my physics professor, for whom mathematics is “just a tool,” I kind of just like the idea of it. I honestly doubt my ability to ever do anything with math in real life. I don’t know if I am that good a problem solver or creative thinker. I still want to learn as much as I can. It feels like something worth doing. It makes me feel good somehow. It intrigues me. That’s why we date people and sometimes even marry them, isn’t it? They just make us feel a certain way. They intrigue us. It isn’t simply about sex, and it’s not about practical matters like his income or her social connections (at least not for normal people). I didn’t have a reason to follow my then-boyfriend to the other side of the globe to pursue our relationship. I didn’t have a reason four years later when I married him. He made (makes) me feel a certain way.

So while I don’t care about math being practical or not, and I didn’t have a practical reason (motive) for marrying my dearest, there’s another way studying math is like marrying the one you love:

Just because you weren’t setting out for some practical benefit, doesn’t mean you won’t get one!

I don’t know a lot about mathematical history, but I’ve read that many branches of mathematics were only found to have practical applications decades later. Even without a time delay, obviously, math does have applications in everything! It does help us with commerce, every branch of scientific investigation, building things, destroying things, and even healing people (you need math to administer the right amount of medicine to someone, for example; and math was also necessary in the development of tons of diagnostic tools and machines). So marriage yields un-looked for benefits as well — financial, legal, emotional, social, and other benefits.

I’m not going anywhere with this, just writing my feelings and observations. Now I’m taking calculus 2, and the first day was pretty tough. Sometimes I “go with” something for a while before I ever figure out why it is that way. I don’t know…. but I really, really like it. I’m trying hard to have a Christian attitude free from worry, fear, ambition, and impatience, too. A couple of weeks ago at Mass, the priest said something… something that made me realize I don’t want to have the wrong attitude about my education. I am intimidated and afraid, and I do feel inadequate and stupid, if I allow myself. But worrying won’t increase my height! Sufficient to the day is the evil (or, as I fondly remember reading from a very old German Bible, “die Plage”) thereof. Since I’ve started working on this sort of spiritual aspect of being a student, I’ve felt better. I’ve liked the math more. Where is it going? Where am I going? I don’t know.

I shall now conclude, however, as the album I was listening to has. I have work to do.

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