Why Do I Need to Learn This?

Why Do I Need to Learn This? Its an older than old question every student asks, any and every one, when stuck in a subject they have no interest in. Though as most of us can probably vouch for, no one ever hears this quite as much as in a mathematics class. Because really, when am I ever going to need to know how to find the area of a circle? Why should I care what pi is?  And who the heck ever uses calculus?

If we as a species were not mathematically inclined, then our society would never have developed the way it did. Even without the obvious technical professions that require a more advanced understanding, something as simple as bartering would have never existed without the concept of a fair exchange. Math does not just imply exact calculations; that feeling we get when the exchange “looks fair” is just our own inexact mental math giving us an idea of what is equal.

But that was years ago. We have money for that now, right? Well yes, but how do you think the system was outlined? What about credit and debit cards? The cards and the behind-the-scene workers that figure out your loans and credit are using all kinds of calculus so you don’t have to worry about it, trusting someone else to do it for you. You don’t need to know the background math as long as you have money right? Even if you don’t add or subtract the numbers yourself, how do you know whether the amount you have is great or small? This again returns us to our ability to gage an inexact mental measurement.

But why does it have to exist at all? Surely a time existed before math right?

Daniel Everett and Pirahã native on the cover of Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Daniel Everett. Image: Robert Burdock, via Flickr.

Daniel Everett and a Piraha native on the cover of Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Daniel Everett. Image: Robert Burdock, via Flickr.

Well, not exactly. Mathematics, despite popular belief, was not something a bunch of smart people sat around and developed purely for the sake of driving their students to madness. It did not simply begin as the arithmetic we think of when hearing the word “math”, but simplicities such as numbers and magnitude. Even animal behaviorists are beginning to realize that they too have always had an active recognition of such things. Prehistoric evidence has given us a glimpse of our own ancestors’ concepts of just “one”, “two” and “many” that has not yet disappeared from this world. Though modern mathematicians have developed so very far beyond this humble start, there are still people today who do not have a counting system that extends any further. The Pirahã tribe, native to the Brazilian Amazons, is one such example. Their language does not contain numbers greater than two, though there is still debate whether this means some other part of their grammar does not imply counters. This tribe is an excellent example of a people with no advanced mathematic development, and yet a perfect example of how unquantified numbers are still a part of their everyday lives. Every day the hunters and gatherers are still faced with the question of how much food is enough for everyone, and though their numbers may not have a specific name or assigned symbol, their interpretation of “many” reaches greater estimation than mere numbers tell them.

Even if you’re never formally taught advanced mathematics, you still unconsciously uses math to some degree every day. Galileo was once quoted:

“The Universe is a grand book which cannot be read until one first learns to comprehend the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics.”

Really, what is math but a tool? Just our own formally outlined way of understanding what goes on around us. There can’t be such a thing as a “world without math” because that world simply would not exist. Time would still pass, scientific and mathematical properties and functions would carry on even without our knowledge of what was happening. At least with even a slight mathematical background, we as humans are free to knowingly interact with our universe in a way no species has before. We do not simply trust the world around us, we understand it.






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