The Value of Mathematics
I didn’t enjoy math until I hit algebra. Part of the reason was probably a change in curriculum to one more enjoyable (and comprehensible!) But I also know that doing pages of long division or percentage problems – even if they were put into story form to decipher – were things I just found boring. Algebra was difficult at first. It was such a queer way of thinking I was unaccustomed to. But as time went on, I got the hang of it, and suddenly, math was fascinating.
Then I took geometry that taught the logic and history behind the math. Having just read a book that introduced me to basic logic (in relation to apologetics!), I was entranced. The stories of the Greeks, and how they used the tools I was studying to discover the size of the earth, distance from the moon and even the distance from earth to the sun was fascinating and definitely added to the study.
I came to precalculus and knew it could only get better from here. Then, what I considered the zenith of my math education: calculus. I discovered that despite the immense difficulties it presented, calculus makes perfect sense. It didn’t feel like I was learning Arabic, as when I started Algebra. In many ways, calc is just an extended form of algebra. For me, that made it much easier to tackle – it was inherently difficult, and not difficult because I didn’t have a clue as to what was going on.
My favorite aspects about learning math are twofold: the way it is shown to connect with the real world and the way it glorifies (and even points to) God. For me, this makes math exciting. The fact that these cryptic, symbolic mathematical laws dreamt up in some mathematician’s brain actually pertains to physical objects, scientific concepts and even universal, absolute natural laws is quite intriguing.
Take algebra, for example. Its sole purpose is not, actually, to teach its students reasoning skills (although that is a very large by-product of the study). Algebraic equations are the expressions of chemical and physical laws that govern the world. It can be applied to baking just as easily as it could be applied to ballistics. By mixing it with geometry, it applies to basic relationships between variables. Economic and ecological systems alike can be described using graphs of algebraic equations. The mathematician who invented the use of vectors (essential for studying most curves) thought them a trivial mind game until - twenty years later – physicists discovered force and motion problems could be analyzed using them, with a little trigonometry thrown into the mix.
There are, of course, systems in which change is not constant. Most economical systems, populations and motion do not carry on in a straight line. This is where calculus becomes important, for it studies change. Algebra can be used to determine the slope in a straight line; calculus considers the change in slope over a curved line. With further mathematical legerdemain, it can analyze three-dimensional objects. Those action-packed movies with fancy (and perhaps totally overdone) special effects and animated fairy tales use upper levels of calculus to create the computer images.
Meaning, of course, that math applies to the arts as well as to the sciences.
There is, however, a problem. If math is really ‘made’ by mathematicians, why should ideas coming from their brains relate to the real, tangible world? Do mathematicians create reality? Of course not. Something else is going on: mathematicians discover mathematics.
Everything in the universe obeys mathematical laws, from nucleons in an atom to supernovae in far away galaxies. The genetics of flowers, the formation of a hurricane, the design of a snail shell, the electric signaling that goes on in our brains, the patterns of water dripping from a faucet - everything is governed by math. Music harmonizes due to mathematical precision in the instrument’s construction. Skyscrapers and Roman arches stand firmly because of the mathematical measurements and ratios in their architecture. There are insects who brains process yearly cycles using algorithms (sequenced precisely to coordinate with the brains of every other local species in order for their life cycle to carry on), worms who essentially take derivatives (as in calculus) to navigate underground, seals with fatty layers around their ear holes that are laid in such a way as to mathematically resemble the design of a trumpet, and evidence suggesting that dolphins may use nonlinear mathematics while hunting (which is a subject above and beyond calculus altogether). You simply can’t get away from these abstract, esoteric laws –whether you’re looking at the natural world or humanity’s most advanced technological society.
Where do such laws come from, and why do they work? Such constant, immaterial laws do not simply spring from out of nowhere or come about from the nonchalant design from a logically contradictory designer (after all, math’s foundations are in logic). The reason why the universe works in mathematically directed ways is because the God of Christianity made it that way. The Bible alone describes a God who is rational, who has intimate knowledge of every detail of His creation, works all things together for His purpose, and who has revealed Himself, through His invisible attributes, to every man and woman made in His image. The world of mathematics shouts to His glory.
Learning more about math and the way it applies to the world around us, in science, society and ever the arts, makes me only more eager to dive in. I encourage anyone who hasn’t tried them yet: don’t let anyone ever scare you away from algebra, trigonometry or calculus. These subjects are so worth it! Even if we think we’ll never use them again, getting a glimpse into the intricacies of creation will send us worshipping Christ, the One in whom all things hold together.
Math is difficult, but it is also beautiful and rewarding. It is inspiring to think of all the ways it describes and governs the world around us. And the farther we look into mathematics, the more in awe of our Creator we become.