Fear of a Math Planet

If girls can't do math, why was the greatest 20th century mathematician a woman? (And yes, I've used this line and image before. So sue me. But buy the t-shirt first, please.)

I’m going to at Science Online 2012 starting today, so blogging will likely be even lighter than has become normal. However, before I vanish, I wanted to put a few thoughts out about something very familiar to many of us. The problem may be phrased in several ways, such as “I hate math!”, “Math is too hard for me”, “I wanted to be a scientist, but I couldn’t handle the math”, and so forth.

Obviously there are a lot of cultural hang-ups hiding in these statements, involving gender, class, race, worries about seeming “too geeky”… all the usual suspects, in other words. If you are a 16-year-old, it might be hard to admit you like math, or even that math may be necessary. I even find myself demurring sometimes about math to suit the cultural prejudices, and I’m as math-focused as can be in my physics research.

However, I was thinking about this issue when a respected scientist in another discipline made an off-hand comment about how they were proud of achieving success without needing math. A few of us on Twitter started exchanging thoughts on this from several different points of view: people who never took calculus (for example) but really feel now that it’s a missing piece from their education, others who have struggled to become proficient enough so that it’s not an obstacle to the kind of science they do, and others who decided they needed math enough to become good at it, despite misgivings. Others (like me) discovered that the higher-level the math, the more interesting they found it. In my own case, calculus was the first math class where I truly felt connected to the material, understanding why and how it’s important—even as I struggled to perform well in the course.

That of course touches on another related point: not everyone has to be a mathematician or mathematical genius. Proficiency comes in many levels and styles. Many of my mathematician colleagues no doubt think my emphasis on applications of math to science is unnecessary, that the math can be appreciated on its own—I don’t disagree with that completely, but that’s not what thrills me personally. Math is essential to the kind of science I do. I would rather see math destigmatized than its importance downplayed, least of all by professional scientists.

Math is a broad and varied subject, ranging from the theory of numbers to the properties of objects independent of their shape and size. Maybe those of us who want to increase interest and literacy in science should introduce the panoply of wonderful subfields: geometry (including stuff beyond the theorems about triangles we spent all our time on in high school), dynamics, topology, and yes, even algebra and calculus.


3 Responses to “Fear of a Math Planet”

  1. 1 Adrienne January 19, 2012 at 14:47

    Apparently a new study is coming out showing that the math stereotype is not why women can’t do math. I can’t read the whole article, stuck at home on a snow day in Seattle (making me wish even more I was at Science Online 2012), but I thought you might be intersted in this: http://chronicle.com/article/Stereotypes-Do-Not-Explain/130377/

    • 2 Matthew R. Francis January 19, 2012 at 14:50

      Thank you – I was intending to link that study in the post, and totally forgot (since I didn’t end up addressing gender specifically). Maybe I’ll expand this piece for Double X….

  1. 1 A Mathematical Prelude and Fugue « Galileo's Pendulum Trackback on January 29, 2012 at 17:17
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