Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What is Math?

Yesterday we had a brief discussion in class about what math is.  For a bunch of math majors we came up with an explanation centered on the notion that it is a quantifiable way to explain physical phenomenon but also includes ways to predict imaginary situations.  The main thing I took away from this discussion was that our definition is probably very different from most of the general population.  I believe most people would consider math to be pure computations, glossing over its ability to apply to a vast amount of situations.  So when the follow up question "what was the first math" was asked I thought of a different question.. I started to wonder what the first people who studied math thought it was.  When did they realize this was a new subject worth studying?  I imagine early civilizations didn't think of bartering at a market and traveling long distances in terms of math like we might, so it's hard to say what they thought the first math was.

Whatever the first math was, there are points in the history of math that stand out as adding great benefit to the current study of math or even the current state of the world.  I'm personally intrigued by the mathematics that went into planning overseas journeys of discovery.  I can't fathom figuring out how many supplies it would take to last until the ship docked again, in addition to how much weight a ship would carry if it was to return with goods.  Also how to calculate times and distances of these journeys.  Without all of that careful planning that no doubt took a lot of mathematical calculations we might not be in America right now. :)

In terms of the study of mathematics, Euclid made an enormous contribution by defining the components of geometry.  Not only did his definitions give us the foundation to discuss geometry, but he gave us a way to prove concepts so every mathematician could easily communicate.

I also think the invention of a definite monetary system was a significant development.  Although it doesn't really add the to the academic side of math, it is probably the most widely used application of math and occurs every second of the day. The idea that math is only for people who actively study it is discounting it a great deal.  Even though exchanging money seems pretty basic it provides ways to talk about fractions, decimals, operations, even exponents for interest rates.  And because money plays a crucial role in people's lives I think it's an important point when talking about math.

History is so rich that I find it very interesting to pull out the details concerning mathematics.  Then analyzing it to see how those experiences tied into the minds and cultures of the past to influence the concept of what math was at that time intrigues me greatly.  Knowing that math has changed a lot since its conception makes me wonder where it could go from here!


  1. Original take! I think you meant Euclid here, though Euler is a big deal.

  2. Ha! Of course I meant Euclid. My bad!