Sunday, 3 October 2010

Mathematical Manipulation

This is a Sunday, a fairly nice Sunday I might say. That is taken in the light of what could be discussed in this blog rather than what will be. The weather is cold, windy and the leaves are falling to the ground like weights, as if they wanted to reach their final descent and grave quickly, not realising that this is their final journey and that they wont have the privilege again of covering the canopy of some ancient birch for the benefit of the rest of us. But alas I digress.

I like maths, I like maths because I might be so bold as to say that I am relatively good at it when compared to the rest of the populace of my age. Granted, people at my university are even better than me at maths but some are also worse much to the chagrin of their tutors I can imagine. Maths is a difficult subject if one considers its image, it is not what one would call 'blessed' with a sexy image but is rather vexed by the revulsion it involuntarily invokes in so many young compatriots. Those who were not fortunate enough to be blessed by mathematical fortitude have come to know the wrath of this unfortunate handicap which they possess.

It has become en vogue to try to redefine the founding pillars of maths for the benefit of the majority. 'Retake the Arithmetic' the hoi polloi shriek or more familiar yet 'Rein in the Nerds.' A bit insulting if you ask me (who invariably is the subject of their bemusement) but I know it is all in good fun if not with a hint of seriousness steeped in animation. There have been a lot of valiant attempts by Mathematicians and non-Mathematicans (and by science and non-science types) to try to instil a sense of ease in those not predestined to walk the halls of Integrals. Take this for example or why not this. 'Popular science' and 'popular maths' have become part of the colloquial tour de force with which science correspondents try to explain and convey the most abstract of concepts. Good for them they have certainly not chosen an easy task. However one must not forget that people without proper foundations in science will face difficulties understanding it, whilst they might have chosen a difficult field they also wield great power for they often get things hopelessly wrong. And look rather peevish when real scientists have to come in a clean-up their mess. I am going to step on an arrogant note here: we should not have to come in and clean-up their mess, if they do not comprehend a subject they should leave it alone or pass it on to someone who does. That said I will echo Einstein when I propose that science and maths are of little use if people cannot understand them.

Much as I admire Einstein was he correct in that latest of assertions? Most people do not know how or even why their iPhone4 functions as it does but they do not seem to be particularly worse of do they? The same with computers, they are ridiculous difficult machines to understand and the governing maths even more so, yet this is not the main concern for users. Quantum computing is on the rise but only a handful of people in the world (less than say 100,000 and yours truly does not count himself among those) have in-depth knowledge of the fundamental physical interactions which govern the behaviour of quantum functions which acquiesce the building of computers who can 'think' at the speed of light.

It would appear thus that intricate knowledge of the gears and spanners that make today's information society possible, are not necessary in order to take part in said society. Only for a select few is that knowledge necessary in order to further the boundaries of science. Which is why, though I admire their attempts, it seems somewhat futile to even begin to write Natural Science titles which begin with the epithet 'popular' since that is anathema to the confines of science. Science should be open for everyone, of course, but only for those who seek it. We obsess to a degree seldom seen, that everyone must take part in the latest results from CERN, yet only very few people can take any joy out of those numbers. Naturally, tax-funded the whole establishment was, its main benefit to society wont be the results it produces directly as part of its raison d'ĂȘtre, no, but rather the spin-off technology which will be developed to reach that end. That is where the true value to society lies and not in endless terabytes of data it spews out every second it is turned on.

This the principle by which I live; most people are stupid. But, everyone is good at something but by some stroke of nature the majority are not predisposed to natural science. Unfortunately. We can either accept this and press on with more urgent matters or we can, as is the current trend, continue to harbour under the illusion that everyone is equally bright and can reach the same standards. You do not even need a GCSE in maths to function normally and successfully in today's society. Yet politicians insist that virtually everyone needs to go to university - even those who have no desire to do so. As much as I regret to say it, unless you have a penchant for natural sciences you are going to find it difficult and it really is not something you can learn. Inhaling facts is not the same thing as understanding them. Like singing we say as part of 'good-will', that anyone can learn it, but most teachers know that this is simply not true. They tell that to parents so that they shall not think their children inferior to their peers, and quite right too, but the reality is far darker than the unicorn/fantasy-world parents are falsely led into.


Mark Wadsworth said...

I would counter that most people are incredibly good at maths. I was reminded of this yesterday when I wanted to cross the road and saw a car approaching.

Without knowing the speed of the car, the likelihood that the driver would slow down if I stepped into the road, the width of the road or the speed at which I could cross the road (either walking or running) it took me about 0.1 seconds to calculate that I could safely cross without running or the driver having to slow down.

So i crossed the road, safely of course, otherwise I wouldn't be here typing this.

The calculations that a footballer has to do if he wants to head a corner shot into the goal are infinitely more complex (were one to try and express all the variables in mathematical terms), yet thousands of people around the world manage this feet ever weekend.

Similarly, the calculations required to calculate somebody's "benefit entitlement" are infinitely complex (and there is often no absolute correct answer) but millions of badly educated Brits have come to the correct conclusion that they are better off on welfare than in a low paid job, and respond accordingly.

And so on.

Mark Wadsworth said...

"this feat" obviously, not "this feet".

Anonymous said...

If I may be so cheeky as to offer some corrections:

Rein in (instead of Reign in)

Peers (instead of Pears)

It may be your laptop as I often post and find that I have mistyped my worms (as the incomparable Two Ronnies ( or were they Ronny's?) used to say).

Excellent website and you have an interesting view of the Marxist, eco-religious shit-hole that this country has become.


Last Patriot

13th Spitfire said...

@ Mark, thank you for your comment and yours is truly and interesting point of view. You point to exactly the type of maths I think everyone should be able to access and have knowledge of. That maths which we use in our everyday to interact with our fellow man. My thesis was more of the form that it is utterly pointless to teach someone the finer subtleties of integral calculus when they will never use it again.

@ Anonymous (Last Patriot), thank you for those kind words and your observant eye. I think twice as fast as I type unfortunately - a pest that has haunted me since day one.

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