Things Every Mathematician is Tired of Hearing

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“I was never good at math.”

Nobody was ever good at math. In fact, I’m still not good at math. That’s the thing with mathematics. You’re never short of feeling dumb. It takes months to understand a simple concept sometimes. Once you get it, you feel dumb for not getting it earlier. If you weren’t getting it in the beginning, you still feel dumb.

You never win.

“I was always good at math.”

Still wrong. Most people falsely believe that mathematics is a series of number crunching or variable discoveries. This is true in grade school, but it ends anywhere you choose to begin seriously climbing the mathematical hierarchy.

It’s not a search of ‘x’ or a balancing of numbers or an act of memorization. You were maybe faster than other kids at doing mental computation, but, other than that, you weren’t really doing much mathematics.

“Yeah, when do you ever use math in your real life? Like, Algebra or Trigonometry, is that even useful anywhere, haha?”

In fact, mathematics is the most direct model we have to reality. Without it, there is no basis on which to build roads, or homes, or automobiles, or bring you electricity, or create medicines, or literally do anything. You are using mathematics to understand the syntax of this sentence. You use mathematics to understand patterns, structure, and order. If you see symmetry, you understand symmetry because of mathematics and the invention and convention of zero. When you get angry and cut someone off on the freeway, you are using the rules of calculus to do so.

If you wanted to disprove me, you would use mathematics to do so, ironically contradicting yourself.

Everywhere you go, the principles of mathematics are working in the background, in your mind, invisible and unacknowledged by most. It just doesn’t look like the stuff you were doing in grade school.

Yeah, I always hated math.”

Yes, oftentimes, me too. That isn’t the same as having the motivation to study it. You can hate something and still have respect for it. There is nothing worse in this world than studying something you already had figured out before you entered a classroom. It is a cheat to yourself and your intellectual capabilities. If you tell me you hated mathematics and, so, you quit, I won’t think less of you, but it might be time to begin thinking more about the things you say and choose.

“What do mathematicians even study, more numbers?”

No. Mathematics is not about numbers. Numbers are a tool that helps you represent something in reality, as is everything else about mathematics. It’s about the organization and the pattern within reality. Continuous groupings, identities, similarities, differences. They need to be organized in a way that’s uniformly understood to everyone and done in a way that is exact and concise.

It turns out this is extremely hard to do. Both for the people creating it and the people learning it.

In upper-division mathematics, you begin to learn about these abstractions. Even harder, you begin to prove them. It shouldn’t surprise you if you stop seeing the numbers altogether.

Mathematics was always so boring.”

I feel like this is a perceived ability problem. A person tries to learn some mathematics. The person feels overwhelmed by the math and the work. The person gets behind on lessons. The person gives up.

After that, it’s easier to blame math and chalk it up to its dryness rather than admit to a major defeat in one’s ego. Math humbles people, and the truth doesn’t waste time on people’s belief systems. It either is or it isn’t.

It’s brutally fair.

You can find the most powerful lessons in life from the simplest stories. The apple that fell from a tree and granted Isaac Newton the mathematical vision for gravity is a testament to those very stories.

Generally, things aren’t boring because of some absolute metric everybody agrees on. They’re boring because of us. I could find distance running to be the best thing in the entire universe, and you can find it the most dreadfully dull thing ever.

We have the power to make something from nothing. While every other field spanning from science to art gifts society with advancements and aesthetics, mathematics is the only field that gifts the toolkit for those fields to eventually invent and innovate. It is infallible in nature, infinitely powerful in use, and humbling all at the same time.

At its core, math is one of the purest art forms. The philosophy surrounding core mathematical ideas has struck chords with humanity since the beginning of time itself.

Written by

UC Berkeley, mathematics. Los Angeles. Long-time runner. Top writer on Quora, 100M+ total content views. New to Medium. Inquiries: Moumj@berkeley.edu

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