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Is Math Useless?

  1. Sep 30, 2007 #1

    tony873004

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    In my teacher's office hours, I expressed some disappointment that she was going to skip one of the "application" sections, which are my favorites. I complained that math is useless if its never applied to anything. And I tend to quickly forget math unless I see it applied to real world applications because it helps me visualize the math in a way that pure memorization can never achieve.

    I was surprised that she disagreed. She told me that "back-in-the-day", non-applied mathamaticians looked down upon applied mathamaticians as the working class. She told me that she was about halfway inbetween the 2 opinions, although the sections in the book she is choosing to skip tell a different story. She refered to math as "mental msturb...ion" (I would hope this word is censored in the forum). It's not hard to see her point. I get that warm fuzzy feeling too, every time I struggle for a half hour on a problem and finally figure it out. But that said, I have to admit I would have zero interest in math if math could not be applied to solve real world problems. If 2 dollars + 2 dollars didn't equal 4 dollars, I wouldn't even have an interest to know simple addition.

    I was just interested in the opinions of others on this issue. Is pure non-applied math useless?
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 30, 2007 #2

    morphism

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    In a word: No.
     
  4. Sep 30, 2007 #3

    morphism

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    Here is a post I made which I think could be relevant to this discussion.

    (And here's the thread that post came from.)
     
  5. Sep 30, 2007 #4
    pure non-applied math isn't useless I think, but for some people like me it's pretty hard to learn without the applications, or graphs.

    When I took linear algebra I had NO idea exactly what was going on I was passing but I didn't understand. Until I did some of the applications and graphed some of the matrices...
     
  6. Sep 30, 2007 #5
    Most math has to be applied. How do you get the pytagorean Theorem without a physical triangle?
     
  7. Oct 1, 2007 #6

    morphism

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    Like this!
     
  8. Oct 1, 2007 #7

    tony873004

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    Thanks, morph, for the links. It's very interesting stuff. I'm like bob1182006. I need to know why, and I'm not a very good math student until I do know why. In calc I, we didn't touch applications until the last week of the course. I wish they were integrated throughout the course, because as a result, I struggled through the course. It seems that math classes are designed for diciplined students, rather than intuitive thinkers. For example, I got C in Calc I the first time I took it. Three of my friends, over the years, got A's. Unlike me, they were very diciplined students: no partying until the homework is finished. But a few weeks ago, I gave all of them the same challenge: create a word problem that requires Calc I material to solve. You do not have to solve the problem. Just come up with one. I only got answers like "well, its the slope of the curve...". I'd respond with "why might I want to know that?" But not one of the A students could come up with a real-life application, while I, the C student, can come up with hundreds.
     
  9. Oct 1, 2007 #8
    I have heard another women describe it as "mental masturbation," which makes no sense since it is definitively not a flight of fantasy. "Back in the days" when some looked down on applied math, that was definitively not the attitude of the Government, who used a lot around the time of the moon shot. Similarly for employers like life insurance companies and advertisers needing statistical analysis.
     
  10. Oct 1, 2007 #9

    Chronos

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    Pure mathematics does not always agree with observation. That might mean the universe is sitting in the back row of class, or, it might mean we do not sufficiently understand how to apply it. Our math might be better than our understanding of its implications.
     
  11. Oct 1, 2007 #10
    1.why in the world would a word like masturbation be censored?
    2. who cares if it's useless? not everything needs utility.
     
  12. Oct 1, 2007 #11
    There isn't always such a fine line between theoretical and applied math. Also, a lot of math that starts out being very theoretical can be applied over time. Basically any math is useful math.
     
  13. Oct 1, 2007 #12

    Gib Z

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    Pure mathematics is not exactly useless just because it has no applications.

    Even if it doesn't have any clear applications at the time, even the purest of mathematics can find unexpected uses. Famous Number Theorist Hardy was a proud pure mathematician, who thought the best mathematics was the type that could not hurt or affect anyone. He took pleasure in knowing that what he was doing could not be applied and preferred math that way. I'm sure he's rolling in his grave ever since Computers started using prime number factorisation as a method of encryption.

    Even something like the Riemann Zeta function, which is very deep in the purest of modern mathematics, gives useful results in string theory (where one needs to evaluate zeta(-1), and expects a finite answer on physical grounds) and deep consequences in prime numbers and hence computer security.

    I myself am like the female teacher, between both grounds. I study both areas, because I find both interesting. However I find I am more on the pure side, for example the Calculus I learn is viewed by most to be a tool very applicable to many physical things, but I study it for the pure mathematics.

    To me, mathematics gives me a sense of enjoyment that other people get from just as non applicable hobbies, such as stamp collecting or bird watching.
     
  14. Oct 1, 2007 #13

    tony873004

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    One of the biggest challenges the administrators of forum boards face is keeping spam off the board. There are many spam-bots out there that continuously try to register accounts and post garbage. The spam they post is usually porn or viagra related. Certain words raise red flags, and this is one of them. It's not too often that someone on a Math and Physics board might want to use that word.

    This forum obviously does a good job, since I don't see much spam here. But on my forum board at gravitysimulator.com , until my fellow administrator and I set up some filters, we had an annoying amount of xxx-related spam, most generated by robots, and some containing that word. I just checked our filter list, and that word is not included, but many similar xxx-related and racist words are.
     
  15. Oct 1, 2007 #14

    matt grime

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    You can read it on your own, you know. You are not beholden to do precisely what the teacher tells you. Later on you observe that other students are 'do the homework before partying' straight A types. These two things say a hell of a lot.

    Then apply it if it helps you. This is university right? You don't get spoon-fed.

    Again, what is stopping you going through the bit in some book that applies it? Nothing. If you don't want to do the work that helps you get an A not a C as you discuss, then why should the teacher put up with your complaints (your term). If you're not prepared to put in the effort why should she? (I await the 'oh but she's paid to line...' from someone.)

    Really?

    No, although you haven't explained what you mean by 'use'. Is literature useless?
     
  16. Oct 1, 2007 #15

    CRGreathouse

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    How do you feel about Tchaikovsky, Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, and Poe? Did they do only 'useless' things?
     
  17. Oct 1, 2007 #16

    HallsofIvy

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    Matt, shhh! We don't want students knowing that!! Next you be telling them not believe every pearl of wisdom that comes out of our mouths!
     
  18. Oct 1, 2007 #17
    I think the applications should always be added. It makes the student actually have something to learn towards. I used to be good at math but I didn't like it that much. Until Calc 1, I had learned all this math and I didn't understand the point. When we started doing applications it was like a motivational thing.
     
  19. Oct 1, 2007 #18

    tony873004

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    Actually, I do. I often go to the index and search for pages that apply to science and astronomy because I know they'll appeal to my intuition, and I'll have a better chance of understanding them, whether they're assigned or not. But if they're not assigned, then they won't count towards my grade. And if the teacher keeps ignoring sections that go hand-in-hand with the way my mind likes to learn, and the teachers of the other sections of the same class do not, it will have an effect on my grade, and that frusterates me.

    When did I say I wanted to be spoon-fed? Why do all your replies to my threads contain condescending attitude?

    By quoting this without the sentences that follow, you are quoting me out of context. Please don't do that. You give the impression that I don't understand why people who do their homework before partying get better grades than those who don't. The sentences that followed the line you quoted are important to the context. I was just trying to make the point that simply because you are a diciplined student and you can memorize your way to an A does not guarantee that you are truly grasping the material, as evidenced by the fact that 0 out of 3 former A students could not even make up a word problem based on the material, while I have no problem making up word problems. Although I got a C and they got A's, there's something I walked away with from that class that they didn't. It seems to me that a class like Calculus has two purposes, 1: make the students demonstrate that they are diciplined enough to put in the effort to pass such a class, and 2: actually teach them something useful that they can use later in life. It seems to me that classes are structured such that reason 1 is by far the higher priority. Skipping the application sections only reinforces this.
     
  20. Oct 1, 2007 #19

    arildno

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    Those calling maths useless are putting up some arbitrary standard of their own, by which the designate "usefulness" to some class of activity, and "uselessness" to some other class, rarely bothering about defining what either term means.

    Why should they be regarded as the hallowed possessors of objective judgment?

    For example, someone with the individual quirk who gets pleased by seeing an elegant proof for some assertion, is perfectly justified in saying that maths is useful in generating personal pleasure.

    And what's wrong with that?

    Why is mental "masturbation" worse than fiscal masturbation?
     
    Last edited: Oct 1, 2007
  21. Oct 1, 2007 #20

    tony873004

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    Just to clarify, the title to this thread is not "Math is useless" but "Is Math useless?". It was prompted by me stating in office hours to the teacher, in a friendly context, that math without application is useless. She enlightened me that not everyone feels that way. It was a very interesting discussion that I thought I would continue here.

    You and others make very good points. What does useless mean? It needs to be defined. Is a baseball game useless? To many, yes. To me, no. As long as someone is getting pleasure from it, it has purpose.

    Realizing that makes me want to refine my question. Besides providing pleasure to some, is non-applied math useful. Others have responded with scientific breakthroughs that took advantage of math that was once only non-applied, and with links to video lectures discussing this in detail. This is exactly what I wanted. A week ago I was sitting in office hours thinking non-applied math was useless, not even realizing there was another side to the story.
     
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