A Quest to Relearn Maths as an Adult
Admittedly I have insecurities about my mathematical capability, and I know there’s a good chance that some of you reading this will feel the same. In the last two years I’ve been growing increasingly curious about relearning maths as an adult. Part of this curiosity comes from observing friends in the startup community, I’m intrigued by their curiosity and scientific approach to problems.
Our shared discomfort and the stigma around maths education is a major concern. Why aren’t we coming out of our education systems ready to address the world’s urgent and increasingly complex issues?
We’re missing the main steps that make maths so incredibly useful
As for my quest to relearn maths I was puzzled by the array of tools and topics and couldn’t decide where to even begin. Little did I know that what we comprehend as maths is only a fraction of what it actually is, and in fact its very nature is changing as our computers grow more intelligent.
In an episode of WISE Words, Conrad Wolfram challenges our understanding of what maths education is and what should be taught instead: a computer-based maths that could be called “computational thinking.”
If you think about the core essence of what maths is, it’s problem solving. The process of this can be separated into four parts:
- Define the question
- Translate to maths
- Compute answers
- Interpret results, verify
We spend years learning only the third step in our classrooms, and we do a large part of it by hand. This is also the only step that computers can do really well, hence why they’re called “computers”. By missing out on steps 1, 2 and 4 we’re essentially omitting the conceptualization and verification of a problem. Often the result of this is oversimplified problems that leave us questioning the relevance of a maths exercise to the real world.
What would computational thinking look like?
This thinking would be far more conceptually empowering for people. As Conrad outlines, “computers typically do the calculating for us and we should only teach humans to do the calculating where they really need to do it by hand, and leave computers to do it the rest of the time. We should make the subject far more contextual and far more widespread across much of the population.”
Computational thinking is this process by which you problem-solve and a core process by which people can understand the world. The act of computing will only give you partial understanding of what’s going on. That’s why coding and programming are so refreshingly challenging, because it’s testing your mind to abstract, recognize patterns, and apply different parts of understanding together.
Conrad does point out that there’s still a place for mental arithmetic because it has practical uses for estimation. It’s also good for our brains just as exercising is good for our bodies. However the extent to which we base an entire curriculum on this one element should be questioned, as it only requires a fraction of the time we spend learning maths in school.
We can view our entire universe through the lens of maths
I’m going to segue into an awesome book I’m reading at the moment: Max Tegmark’s “Our Mathematical Universe” draws you into a detective story about our universe. The book unfolds the magic of human minds hypothesizing and extrapolating intricate observations of the world to shape our understanding of the universe we live in - (never in my short life have I felt so moved by reading non-fiction).
Computational thinking embraces this wonder and extrapolates it with the use of technology. It emphasizes the relevance of maths across disciplines, from quantum physics to cosmology. It’s another way to investigate elements in the search of truth. This interdisciplinary view of the world is where we can provide great value.
Speaking of great value → Maryam Mirzakhani
My quest wouldn’t be complete without paying tribute to Mirzakhani, who made several contributions to the theory of moduli spaces and understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces. As the first and to-date only female winner of the prestigious Fields Medal, (and a fellow Iranian), Mirzakhani makes me incredibly proud.
Her fascination with the details of curved surfaces was highly theoretical, however it had impacts concerning the theoretical physics of how the universe came to exist, as well as applications in engineering, material science, prime numbers and cryptography (Standford, 2017).
It’s people like Maryam Mirzakhani, Conrad Wolfram and Max Tegmark that have lit a path in my search to relearning and truly appreciating maths.
This is just the beginning of my quest, so if you have any experiences or useful resources to share, please do!