Rant and Rave

The Many Uses of Math

Michael DeCorte sent the following letter

Tom, I am struggling with the words here. Words like "dope" come to mind, but I don't want to say that so I won't.

You see, pure math all by itself is useless. Say this to any mathematician and you are likely to get a bloody nose (or perhaps a lecture on the nonrepeating nature of pi as a punishment). But say this instead to an engineer or economist and they will politely agree and mumble to themselves, "Who's the wacko? Everyone knows that."

Math is a tool, like a screwdriver. A screwdriver isn't good for anything in itself but is very useful in solving a problem like removing the cap off a can of paint. Math is the same. Math in itself isn't good for much of anything unless you try to solve a problem like how much will my car loan be in three years, or perhaps understanding why pumping the brakes work. (Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot to mention that math is so useless in itself you usually have to use another useless tool like physics to make sense of the problem. In the case of pumping the brakes you need to understand a bit of physics--specifically the subtleties of friction--and to do that you need to understand physics, which needs math.)

So, in a sense you are right, but you are still wrong, and I still want to call you a dope but I won't.

Michael DeCorte

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