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The Universe Drips with Mathematics

Noureddine El Alam
Mission Principles: Compelling & Connected Academic Program
Mathematics is a vibrant, elegant, and organically applicable subject. The universe drips with mathematics. One simply cannot escape its influence. Mathematics is everywhere. It is art and it is in the arts. It is in nature, flowers, trees, birds, clocks, walls, airports, breath, sun, wind, waves, airplanes, music, and hearts. The universe runs systematically and is governed by mathematics. Mathematics expands our view of the world, and compels us to investigate the maximal and the miniscule. Mathematics allows us to explain, analyze, and interpret not only systematic behaviors like the alternation of day and night, but also chaotic behaviors such as turbulence and earthquakes.

Mathematics is not only in the universe, but it is also its own universe. It is built on a few unshakable postulates (or axioms) and operates on a series of mathematical objects, one of which is numbers. It has its own rules, and it is formed and deduced through logic. 

Misconceptions about Mathematics
Many people say that they were never good at mathematics. I wondered for years why it is that such bright people were not good at it. I came to realize that it is not the fault of mathematics, for mathematics should be judged based on its merits. Nor is it the fault of these people because they were simply “told” mathematics, and worst of all, they were asked to memorize mathematics, which goes against the very premise of the discipline itself. We see too many overpriced textbooks, written in multiple editions, without a speck of originality. 

Many people also think that mathematics is about performing simple operations and balancing checkbooks. This is not mathematics; it is arithmetic. Manipulating numbers with rules is not mathematics. Mathematicians are not accountants as one might think, and mathematics is not about crunching numbers, though crunching numbers such as finding the first billion digits of the number Pi might have other objectives such as testing the power of a processor.

Who needs Mathematics?
Well, I would say everybody needs mathematics! Consider a muscle like the bicep for example. In order to strengthen it, one needs to exercise it. Similarly, the brain is a muscle. In order to strengthen it, one needs mathematics because it sharpens one’s analytical and reasoning skills and it develops one’s critical thinking. The Arabic term for mathematics is riyadiyat, which literally means activities. It is an activity that polishes and empowers the brain. 

Even in careers that seem far from mathematics such as law, business, and psychology, people with mathematical backgrounds seem to have the advantage over others. They use empirical evidence that is statistically grounded to articulate their point with conviction and precision. They are also trained to think logically and to approach problems in analytical and creative ways.

How does one excel at Mathematics?
Some people are naturally intuitive, gifted, and creative. However, this should not prevent “average” people from pursuing Mathematics. Mathematics requires patience, perseverance, a sense of curiosity, zeal, guts, concentration, mental toughness, courage, and most important, diligence. To excel at mathematics, one has to do it every day. How often one does it is more important than the number of hours one spends doing it.

“Do” is the most appropriate verb to use with Mathematics and there is no legitimate substitute word for it. One can never excel at Mathematics by reading it or looking at it. Working with a pencil and paper is the way to go. The best way to do Mathematics and to develop one’s mathematical intuition is to initiate and solve problems. It is often harder to make up a good problem than to solve it. Every problem solver is a mathematician, but the converse is not necessarily true. That is: not every mathematician is a problem solver. 

Furthermore, the art of asking questions, especially the “what if” questions, is indispensable in mathematics, and with practice, one begins to see that solutions are usually embedded in the problems themselves. Georg Cantor (1845-1918) once said: “The art of asking the right questions in mathematics is more important than the art of solving them.”

Mathematics and your future
Whether representing a university or a business, recruiters look for individuals who take leaps of faith, people who have guts, and people who reason well. One way for them to assess this is to check your mathematical background. They would want to know what mathematics courses you have taken and how well you did. Furthermore, because Mathematics is the foundation of many disciplines, it gives you the flexibility to switch easily between careers. 

Application and Theory
There are over sixty areas (or branches) of mathematics that can be partitioned into pure and applied mathematics. Examples of these branches are Topology, Probability, Quantum Theory, Analysis, Abstract Algebra, and Operation Research. Theorists (or as we call them, purists) do mathematics for aesthetic reasons. They appreciate its beauty and richness of ideas. To them, mathematics is delicate and should be treated with care. It is delightful and a work of art. Applied mathematicians, on the other hand, do mathematics for its utility. They see it as the key that opens the lock of the physical universe. Even descriptive sciences such as economics, genetics, psychology, and biology employ elaborate mathematical techniques. It is only fairly recently that mathematicians have begun to realize that theory and application are inseparable entities, and the world of mathematics is increasingly converging toward a natural embodiment of both views. 

Mathematics and Scientific Thought
Mathematics is the backbone of all scientific study, and it is the mother of all sciences. This said, both mathematics and science are intimately related because mathematics confirms scientific research and science puts mathematics to the test. Without mathematics, there would be neither science nor technology, nor understanding beyond simple observation of the physical world. Superstition would continue to dominate the thinking process as it did for centuries. Physics, Astronomy, Natural Sciences, Chemistry, Agriculture, Biology, and Medicine would not have developed. Computers and telecommunications that are revolutionizing the contemporary era would not exist without the power of mathematics. And with the advance of computing, many areas have been opened up to mathematical treatment-in finance, biology, weather simulation, medical diagnosis, and image processing. 

Mathematics as a Global Language
In its own right, mathematics is a language, and more important, it is a universal language. Anyone who does mathematics, speaks it, writes it, and communicates with it nearly the same way. Mathematicians often communicate well, irrespective of cultural differences, arbitrary political maps, environmental upbringing, or other language barriers. They do not make assumptions, and only generalize with absolute caution. Mathematics is highly objective, and hence unbiased discipline. It does not tolerate jargon or nonsense. It is direct, succinct, clear, and right to the point. 

Some Professions that Require Mathematics
Actuary, Air Pollution Operations Specialist, Applied Science Programmer, Appraiser, Architect, Auditor, Banking, Budget Analyst, Casualty Rater, Cartographer, Computer Scientist, Credit Counselor, Demographer, Econometrist, Engineering Analyst, Estimator, Finance Director, Financial Analyst, Information Scientist, Inventory Manager, Investment Manager, Investment Analyst, Mathematician, Oceanography, Operations Research Analyst, Physical Scientist, Programmer, Psychometrist, Quality Assurance Analyst, Software Engineer, Statistician, Stock Broker, Systems Analyst, Teacher/Professor, Technical Writer, Technical Sales Representative. 

Noureddine El Alam