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WHY MATHEMATICS?
In mathematics I can report no deficience, except it be that men do not sufficiently understand the excellent use of the Pure Mathematics....
FRANCIS BACON
One can wisely doubt whether the study of mathematics is worth while and can find good authority to support him. As far back as about the year 400 A.D., St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in Africa and one of the great fathers of Christianity, had this to say:
The good Christian should beware of mathematicians and all those who make empty prophecies. The danger already exists that the mathematicians have made a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit and to confine man in the bonds of Hell.
Perhaps St. Augustine, with prophetic insight into the conflicts which were to arise later between the mathematically minded scientists of recent centuries and religious leaders, was seeking to discourage the further development of the subject. At any rate there is no question as to his attitude.
At about the same time that St. Augustine lived, the Roman jurists ruled, under the Code of Mathematicians and Evil-Doers, that "to learn the art of geometry and to take part in public exercises, an art as damnable as mathematics, are forbidden."
Even the distinguished seventeenth-century contributor to mathematics, Blaise Pascal, decided after studying mankind that the pure sciences were not suited to it. In a letter to Fermat written on August 10, 1660, Pascal says: "To speak freely of mathematics, I find it the highest exercise of the spirit; but at the same time I know that it is so useless that I make little distinction between a man who is only a mathematician and a common artisan. Also, I call it the most beautiful profession in the world; but it is only a profession; and I have often said that it is good to make the attempt [to study mathematics], but not to use our forces: so that I would not take two steps for mathematics, and I am confident that you are strongly of my opinion." Pascal's famous injunction was, "Humble thyself, impotent reason."
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who despised mathematics, said many nasty things about the subject, among others that the lowest activity of the spirit is arithmetic, as is shown by the fact that it can be performed by a machine. Many other great men, for example, the poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe and the historian Edward Gibbon, have felt likewise and have not hesitated to express themselves. And so the student who dislikes the subject can claim to be in good, if not living, company.
In view of the support he can muster from authorities, the student may well inquire why he is asked to learn mathematics. Is it because Plato, some 2300 years ago, advocated mathematics to train the mind for philosophy? Is it because the Church in medieval times taught mathematics as a preparation for theological reasoning? Or is it because the commercial, industrial, and scientific life of the Western world needs mathematics so much? Perhaps the subject got into the curriculum by mistake, and no one has taken the trouble to throw it out. Certainly the student is justified in asking his teacher the very question which Mephistopheles put to Faust:
Is it right, I ask, is it even prudence, To bore thyself and bore the students?
Perhaps we should begin our answers to these questions by pointing out that the men we cited as disliking or disapproving of mathematics were really exceptional. In the great periods of culture which preceded the present one, almost all educated people valued mathematics. The Greeks, who created the modern concept of mathematics, spoke unequivocally for its importance. During the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, mathematics was never challenged as one of the most important studies. The seventeenth century was aglow not only with mathematical activity but with popular interest in the subject. We have the instance of Samuel Pepys, so much attracted by the rapidly expanding influence of mathematics that at the age of thirty he could no longer tolerate his own ignorance and begged to learn the subject. He began, incidentally, with the multiplication table, which he subsequently taught to his wife. In 1681 Pepys was elected president of the Royal Society, a post later held by Isaac Newton.
In perusing eighteenth-century literature, one is struck by the fact that the journals which were on the level of our Harper's and the Atlantic Monthly contained mathematical articles side by side with literary articles. The educated man and woman of the eighteenth century knew the mathematics of their day, felt obliged to be au courant with all important scientific developments, and read articles on them much as modern man reads articles on politics. These people were as much at home with Newton's mathematics and physics as with Pope's poetry.
The vastly increased importance of mathematics in our time makes it all the more imperative that the modern person know something of the nature and role of mathematics. It is true that the role of mathematics in our civilization is not always obvious, and the deeper and more complex modern applications are not readily comprehended even by specialists. But the essential nature and accomplishments of the subject can still be understood.
Perhaps we can see more easily why one should study mathematics if we take a moment to consider what mathematics is. Unfortunately the answer cannot be given in a single sentence or a single chapter. The subject has many facets or, some might say, is Hydra- headed. One can look at mathematics as a language, as a particular kind of logical structure, as a body of knowledge about number and space, as a series of methods for deriving conclusions, as the essence of our knowledge of the physical world, or merely as an amusing intellectual activity. Each of these features would in itself be difficult to describe accurately in a brief space.
Because it is impossible to give a concise and readily understandable definition of mathematics, some writers have suggested, rather evasively, that mathematics is what mathematicians do. But mathematicians are human beings, and most of the things they do are uninteresting and some, embarrassing to relate. The only merit in this proposed definition of mathematics is that it points up the fact that mathematics is a human creation.
A variation on the above definition which promises more help in understanding the nature, content, and values of mathematics, is that mathematics is what mathematics does. If we examine mathematics from the standpoint of what it is intended to and does accomplish, we shall undoubtedly gain a truer and clearer picture of the subject.
Mathematics is concerned primarily with what can be accomplished by reasoning. And here we face the first hurdle. Why should one reason? It is not a natural activity for the human animal. It is clear that one does not need reasoning to learn how to eat or to discover what foods maintain life. Man knew how to feed, clothe, and house himself millenniums before mathematics existed. Getting along with the opposite sex is an art rather than a science mastered by reasoning. One can engage in a multitude of occupations and even climb high in the business and industrial world without much use of reasoning and certainly without mathematics. One's social position is hardly elevated by a display of his knowledge of trigonometry. In fact, civilizations in which reasoning and mathematics played no role have endured and even flourished. If one were willing to reason, he could readily supply evidence to prove that reasoning is a dispensable activity.
Those who are opposed to reasoning will readily point out other methods of obtaining knowledge. Most people are in fact convinced that their senses are really more than adequate. The very common assertion "seeing is believing" expresses the common reliance upon the senses. But everyone should recognize that the senses are limited and often fallible and, even where accurate, must be interpreted. Let us consider, as an example, the sense of sight. How big is the sun? Our eyes tell us that it is about as large as a rubber ball. This then is what we should believe. On the other hand, we do not see the air around us, nor for that matter can we feel, touch, smell, or taste it. Hence we should not believe in the existence of air.
To consider a somewhat more complicated situation, suppose a teacher should hold up a fountain pen and ask, What is it? A student coming from some primitive society might call it a shiny stick, and indeed this is what the eyes see. Those who call it a fountain pen are really calling upon education and experience stored in their minds. Likewise, when we look at a tall building from a distance, it is experience which tells us that the building is tall. Hence the old saying that "we are prone to see what lies behind our eyes, rather than what appears before them."
Every day we see the sun where it is not. For about five minutes before what we call sunset, the sun is actually below the geometrical horizon and should therefore be invisible. But the rays of light from the sun curve toward us as they travel in the earth's atmosphere, and the observer at P (Fig. 1â€“1) not only "sees" the sun but thinks the light is coming from the direction O'P. Hence he believes the sun is in that direction.
The senses are obviously helpless in obtaining some kinds of knowledge, such as the distance to the sun, the size of the earth, the speed of a bullet (unless one wishes to feel its velocity), the temperature of the sun, the prediction of eclipses, and dozens of other facts.
If the senses are inadequate, what about experimentation or, in simple cases, measurement? One can and in fact does learn a great deal by such means. But suppose one wants to find a very simple quantity, the area of a rectangle. To obtain it by measurement, one could lay off unit squares to cover the area and then count the number of squares. It is at least a little simpler to measure the lengths of the sides and then use a formula obtained by reasoning, namely, that the area is the product of length and width. In the only slightly more complicated problem of determining how high a projectile will go, we should certainly not consider traveling with the projectile.
As to experimentation, let us consider a relatively simple problem of modern technology. One wishes to build a bridge across a river. How long and how thick should the many beams be? What shape should the bridge take? If it is to be supported by cables, how long and how thick should these be? Of course one could arbitrarily choose a number of lengths and thicknesses for the beams and cables and build the bridge. In this event, it would only be fair that the experimenter be the first to cross this bridge.
It may be clear from this brief discussion that the senses, measurement, and experimentation, to consider three alternative ways of acquiring knowledge, are by no means adequate in a variety of situations. Reasoning is essential. The lawyer, the doctor, the scientist, and the engineer employ reasoning daily to derive knowledge that would otherwise not be obtainable or perhaps obtainable only at great expense and effort. Mathematics more than any other human endeavor relies upon reasoning to produce knowledge.
One may be willing to accept the fact that mathematical reasoning is an effective procedure. But just what does mathematics seek to accomplish with its reasoning? The primary objective of all mathematical work is to help man study nature, and in this endeavor mathematics cooperates with science. It may seem, then, that mathematics is merely a useful tool and that the real pursuit is science. We shall not attempt at this stage to separate the roles of mathematics and science and to evaluate the relative merits of their contributions. We shall simply state that their methods are different and that mathematics is at least an equal partner with science.
We shall see later how observations of nature are framed in statements called axioms. Mathematics then discloses by reasoning secrets which nature may never have intended to reveal. The determination of the pattern of motion of celestial bodies, the discovery and control of radio waves, the understanding of molecular, atomic, and nuclear structures, and the creation of artificial satellites are a few basically mathematical achievements. Mathematical formulation of physical data and mathematical methods of deriving new conclusions are today the substratum in all investigations of nature.
The fact that mathematics is of central importance in the study of nature reveals almost immediately several values of this subject. The first is the practical value. The construction of bridges and skyscrapers, the harnessing of the power of water, coal, electricity, and the atom, the effective employment of light, sound, and radio in illumination, communication, navigation, and even entertainment, and the advantageous employment of chemical knowledge in the design of materials, in the production of useful forms of oil, and in medicine are but a few of the practical achievements already attained. And the future promises to dwarf the past.
However, material progress is not the most compelling reason for the study of nature, nor have practical results usually come about from investigations so directed. In fact, to overemphasize practical values is to lose sight of the greater significance of human thought. The deeper reason for the study of nature is to try to understand the ways of nature, that is, to satisfy sheer intellectual curiosity. Indeed, to ask disinterested questions about nature is one of the distinguishing marks of mankind. In all civilizations some people at least have tried to answer such questions as: How did the universe come about? How old is the universe and the earth in particular? How large are the sun and the earth? Is man an accident or part of a larger design? Will the solar system continue to function or will the earth some day fall into the sun? What is light? Of course, not all people are interested in such questions. Food, shelter, sex, and television are enough to keep many happy. But others, aware of the pervasive natural mysteries, are more strongly obsessed to resolve them than any business man is to acquire wealth and power.
Beyond improvement in the material life of man and beyond satisfaction of intellectual curiosity, the study of nature offers intangible values of another sort, especially the abolition of fear and terror and their replacement by a deep, quiet satisfaction in the ways of nature. To the uneducated and to those uninitiated in the world of science, many manifestations of nature have appeared to be agents of destruction sent by angry gods. Some of the beliefs in ancient and even medieval Europe may be of special interest in view of what happened later. The sun was the center of all life. As winter neared and the days became shorter, the people believed that a battle between the gods of light and darkness was taking place. Thus the god Wodan was supposed to be riding through heaven on a white horse followed by demons, all of whom sought every opportunity to harm people. When, however, the days began to lengthen and the sun began to show itself higher in the sky each day, the people believed that the gods of light had won. They ceased all work and celebrated this victory. Sacrifices were offered to the benign gods. Symbols of fertility such as fruit and nuts, whose growth is, of course, aided by the sun, were placed on the altars. To symbolize further the desire for light and the joy in light, a huge log was placed in the fire to burn for twelve days, and candles were lit to heighten the brightness.
The beliefs and superstitions which have been attached to events we take in stride are incredible to modern man. An eclipse of the sun, a threat to the continuance of the light and heat which causes crops to grow, meant that the heavenly body was being swallowed up by a dragon. Many Hindu people believe today that a demon residing in the sky attacks the sun once in a while and that this is what causes the eclipse. Of course, when prayers, sacrifices, and ceremonies were followed by the victory of the sun or moon, it was clear that these rituals were the effective agent and so had to be pursued on every such occasion. In addition, special magic potions drunk during eclipses insured health, happiness, and wisdom.
To primitive peoples of the past, thunder, lightning, and storms were punishments visited by the gods on people who had apparently sinned in some way. The stories in the Old Testament of the flood and of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by fire and brimstone are examples of such acts of wrath by the God of the Hebrews. Hence there was continual concern and even dread about what the gods might have in mind for helpless humans. The only recourse was to propitiate the divine powers, so that they would bring good fortune instead of evil.
Excerpted from Mathematics for the Nonmathematician by Morris Kline. Copyright Â© 1967 Morris Kline. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Anonymous
Posted June 13, 2005
This is simply a great book, even for the mathematically inclined. It's a bit dated, especially in its treatment of 'barbarian' (i.e., non-Greek) civilizations, but its treatment of math is well worth a grain of salt.
1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.
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Posted July 29, 2009
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