Big Picture Science – Math’s Days are Numbered

by Gary Niederhoff on December 2, 2013

Big Picture Science – Math’s Days are Numbered

Imagine a world without algebra. We can hear the sound of school children applauding. What practical use are parametric equations and polynomials, anyway? Even some scholars argue that algebra is the Latin of today, and should be dropped from the mandatory curriculum.

But why stop there? Maybe we should do away with math classes altogether.

An astronomer says he’d be out of work: we can all forget about understanding the origins of the universe, the cycles of the moon and how to communicate with alien life. Also, no math = no cybersecurity + hackers (who have taken math) will have the upper hand.

Also, without mathematics, you’ll laugh < you do now. The Simpsons creator Matt Groening has peppered his animated show with hidden math jokes.

And why mathematics = love.

Listen to individual segments here:
Part 1: Andrew Hacker on math requirements
Part 2: Bob Berman on math and astronomy
Part 3: Simon Singh on math and The Simpsons
Part 4: Rob Manning explains why NASA needs math
Part 5: Edward Frenkel on math and cybersecurity

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jim Hebblethwaite December 10, 2013 at 9:58 pm


Near the end of Math’s Days Are Numbered, you asked listeners to send in what they think is the square root of -5. I think it’s √5 i , or ~2.23 i (by successive approximation with a simple calculator). Am I right? And if so, then what does that qualify me for? [I hope my Wakefield HS attendance doesn't over-qualify me.]

BTW, I notice a lot of relevant, well-produced stuff (the technical term?) in the archives of the podcast, though it’ll take a while to listen to everything there. I find the audio less distracting than split-screen video when I’m at my office waiting for work to come up on my monitor. You and Molly, keep the puns coming! Do you have to send away to Punjab for some of them?

Addendum to BTW: From the Big Bang episode, I was inspired to hack into my microwave oven and harness the background radiation to heat my food up for free! [I wish]

Jim H…………….

avatar Elizabeth Kshatriya-Ward January 19, 2014 at 12:26 pm

I would like to add a personal observation on this topic. I returned to school at around the age of 50. As an artist, I wanted to complete my college degree in Art, and discovered, of course, that I needed to take a math class. I was very concerned, as I had not really used Mathematics since I graduated fro High School in 1961. I found a class that filled the requirement entitled “Symbolic Logic”. Naively, I reasoned, I considered my skills in Logic were pretty good, and symbolism is a large part of Art, so I signed up.

I soon discovered that “Symbolic Knowledge” was actually “Boolean Algebra”, simply an application of Algebra to the analysis of rigorous argument. (oops!). I spent the entire semester convinced that I dodn’t understand the subject at all, and yet I received and “A” in the class.

It was much later that I realized the value of the course, and ti’s relationship to real life. “Symbolic Logic”is really the basis for critical thinking, and crucial to a democratic society! Today, we are struggling with horrendous political spin on almost every crucial decision this country must make, and what is at stake is the fate of democracy as a viable political system. We have not taught critical thinking in our schools for years, leaving the general populace vulnerable to the slick propaganda currently warring for control of the country. Do you think possibly the denigration of the importance of Math skills is actually part of this trend?

Eliminating Math skills from our curriculum is not going to solve anything. If there is a problem with the drop out rate connected with Math courses, then the answer is to incorporate in the Math curriculum the real life applications for which Math may be used. Beyond that, education is not simply entertainment, it is training for the real life problems we must all solve in order to acheive “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”.

avatar James McDougall January 28, 2014 at 6:39 pm

I failed social math in high school. 5 years later I walked myself through a series of texts that culminated in learning calculus (Thomas /Finney 8th edition). Its something you will only learn if you have a personal need for it.

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