Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Why do you like math?

Whenever I meet people who like math, I have one question:  WHY?????  I ask that question because I honestly can’t understand why ANYONE would like math.

Often the reply is, “Because there is only one right answer.”

And I respond, “Why is that a good thing?”

Having only one right answer means there’s no room for creativity, no room for expressing your own ideas, no room for “good, better and best.”  And it also means that any other answer is WRONG.

Is getting the right answer all that matters?  If so, I blame the school system, which emphasizes tests over creativity and learning.  

I prefer subjects that have many right answers—that have room for growth.  Give me a good essay question over a math equation any day.

In all my years of asking people why they like math, I HAVE gotten a few good answers. One woman said math is like a puzzle to be solved.  I get that.  In fact, the few “mathy” things I like are logic puzzles and the game Mastermind.  (But I hate chess.)  My favorite game, Scrabble, has some math components to it. In fact, math people make the best Scrabble players.  (NOTE:  While I’m a good Scrabble player, I will never win a tournament.)

The best answer came from a math professor who teaches at a small college in South Dakota.  He visited our contra dance group, and he described how contra dancing is actually very mathematical.  During a particularly intricate dance, he smiled and said, “This is neat.”  He explained that he was planning on giving his students an option: take the final or write a contra dance.  I liked that. 

When I asked him why he liked math, he answered with two words: “It’s beautiful.”

That’s an answer I can accept.  Math is not beautiful to me.  I find much more beauty in a well-written poem, a creative painting or a plaintive ballad.  But I can accept that math is beautiful to him.


  1. This is a thought-provoking post! I'm not a math person either and I agree with preferring essay questions and creativity. However, I can see that there is beauty in math. I think there's a lot of math in God's creation -- symmetry in the design of humans, trees, animals, etc. There is balance in creation. There's even a great deal of math in music with the rhythm and beat. Just listening to a great song or musical composition is creatively beautiful, but I guess it's also mathematically beautiful! Very interesting ideas to ponder. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Mathematics is simply the human recognition of patterns that already exist. For the most part, these patterns exist in the real world (some naturally, some manmade). Over time, there have been branches of mathematics that have branched off into areas we don't yet recognize in the real world, but it is likely that those discoveries will come over time.

    When someone tosses you a ball, you "do math" without recognizing it to figure out the trajectory so that you can catch it. You may be confusing the symbolic representation of match (ie numbers and equations) with the mathematics itself. Symbolism is trickier to grasp for many because it's one more step removed from reality. You find the same thing in literature. You can read Dickens or Swift as a nice stories, or you can delve deeper to discover the allegories that they were trying to teach. When you understand the allegories, you understand the work on a whole new level and appreciate it so much more.