Who cares about finding X anyway?
|April 29, 2012||Posted by Rosie Watterson under satire|
I spend a lot of my time watching television programmes I frankly can’t stand. And it was during one of these masochistic sprees that I found myself watching a quasi-news programme on maths. As if this wasn’t bad enough, there was a 20 minute piece on the importance of algebra: a concept that is against everything I believe in.
I’ve always been under the impression that algebra was a mere instrument to keep me in full time education for five years longer than necessary. Even the mathematicians among you have to agree that teaching an arty-music-oriented-historian the importance of X was a waste of time; Mrs Best certainly didn’t slave over her degree to teach the likes of me. And I have to confess that I have never, and I mean never, used Y = MX + C. Ever. And that’s why I have always assumed that algebra was completely useless to everyone; it wasn’t an assumption I had thought through, just a flush of naivety. So watching this programme was a lot like the moment I found out that in France they eat snails: I had always assumed no one ate snails. Why would they? It would be horrible. How could algebra possibly be useful to anyone, ever?
Before I knew it, I was on the internet researching a programme I didn’t like on a subject I couldn’t stand. Typing “the importance of algebra” into Google, I had resigned the next hour of my life. There are, admittedly, some relatively convincing examples, such as estimating the food consumption when ordering for a party: OK, I can see myself doing that. But then there are some examples that, I can assure you, will never take place in my life: working out the distance of Mars from my exact location, for example.
I think my disdain for algebra stems from a combination of my inability and maths’ snobbery. When my maths-student friend utters phrases like “numbers are beautiful,” “the essence of mathematics is its freedom,” and, the phrase I detest above all else, “Maths is the language of the universe,” I struggle not to leap over the table and beat her to death with her oversized calculator. You don’t see any other subject flaunting its importance like that. History doesn’t say it is the basis of the universe because the future is merely history that is yet to happen. The language department doesn’t waltz over to the maths department and say: “Without language you would be unable to express your distaste for the number of significant figures.” That would never happen. They would be uninvited from the staff Christmas party.
As you may have noticed, I am now writing an article based on something I read about a programme that I watched that focused on a subject I hate. Because this state of affairs is difficult to manage, I’m going to quickly conclude and do something productive, like watch Family Guy.
Algebra is important for figuring out logical problems, but, in my personal experience the most important problems haven’t been logical ones. Poverty, for example: some people are rich, some people starve. The issue is not in need of logic – we all know the logic, yet there is still a problem. It needs something more abstract, more fluid, something based on the philosophy of something-or-other, not a quantity divided by a population.
We, as human beings, are not logical creatures. OK, strip us down to the atoms, the physicality, and we are. But surely what distinguishes us from animals, from everything else in our world, is our higher thought and, some may argue, soul. This is obviously not logical, and because of this I would argue that many of the most important problems involving humans cannot be solved by maths – or at least, not by maths alone. I’m not saying maths, and more specifically algebra, is useless; that would be ridiculous. I’m merely pointing out that it often is ineffective in our lives without other schools of thought, and yet it is put on a pedestal like no other subject. So next time you fancy uttering a “maths makes the world go round” type of statement, just remember: knowing the exact ratio of alcohol to blood in your system will not prevent your impending hangover. Not in the slightest.