Some weeks ago I asked my midwife what made her chose her job. She told me she had actually wanted to study medicine, but didn't meet the numerus clausus. Rspt she ranked place thirtythousandsomething. With an apologetic look at the shelves full with physics and maths books behind me, she added maths was her problem. She couldn't figure out what is was supposed to be good for.
She has a point there, I thought through endless repetitions of my pelvis floor exercises, and though it's hardly the first time I've heard this remark I started to wonder what role mathematics does really play in every day life. (Okay, I admit, what I really thought was it would make a good topic for a blog post.) Arguably, I need a lot of maths in my life because otherwise I'd be unemployed. But how much maths does the average person really need? And what do they need? And does school teach it?
You don't need to learn maths to survive. Otherwise mankind would have gone extinct long ago. Amazingly enough though, your brain performs some basic mathematics all the time, such as extrapolating the motion of moving objects. In an interesting experiment measuring the activity of neurons in rhesus monkeys, researchers from the University of Tübingen have found that different sets of neurons fire in response to the monkey seeing sets with different numbers of elements. Basically, there's neurons that are (primarily) activated by specific numbers. (See Bongard and Nieder, PNAS 107, 2277 (2010)). And it is known that people with certain brain injuries lose the ability to understand, compare, and deal with numbers, a disability known as acalculia. It does seem plausible then that dyscalculia, difficulties in learning and comprehending mathematics, is so some extend due to wiring instead of motivational problems. However, that's estimated to affect only a small percentage of the population. Most people who don't understand maths don't understand it because they've never really made an effort. Which brings us back to the question what's it good for?
Basic arithmetics is so universally useful that it benefits your selective advantage. Whether you want to know if you've enough money to fill up the tank, are worried that the baby didn't drink enough, or need to know how many bottles of sparkling wine to order for your graduation party, it haunts you everywhere. Beyond that, if you want to understand your average magazine or newspaper, you better know how to read a graph. And unless you want to blindly trust your financial adviser, percent calculation should be on your list.
Having come to this point, I Googled for "mathematics in every day life." The first hit was a long deserted blog with a handful of entries that, next to percent calculation, discusses symmetries in car logos and flowers. However, one doesn't need to know the mathematical definition of a group to plant a flower. Google further brought up a document I couldn't open, a file not found, a power point representation on photoshopping, and a Tutorvista question "How is maths used in everyday life?" with the reply "Math is used in time calculation, shopping, traveling, cooking, and all other important activities." All together not an impressive result. What is maths good for if not even Google knows?
School mathematics tends to drown pupils in 'real life' examples that no normal person will ever use in their real life. Yes, I sometimes add up the prices of items in the supermarket just for distraction, but it's arguably a pretty pointless exercise. Yes, it helps to know some trigonometry to figure out if the new furniture will actually fit through the door, but then you can rent furnished. And who really cares what's the volume of that piece of cake.
The real value of mathematics isn't that you can calculate what 500 sq ft is in international units, because Google does that for you. That, incidentally doesn't have much to do with maths anyway. Sadly, school doesn't teach children much about the beauty of maths, the value of logic, and the power of proofs. You don't need mathematics to live, but you need it to understand - for example Google's PageRank. What is mathematics good for? Mathematics is at the basics of science, including physics, computer science, and economics, examples are omnipresent in your every day life. Without mathematics, you're left in the fuzzy realm of storytelling. How can one understand the world without knowing what a differential equation is, without knowing what optimization is?
No, you don't need to know maths to plant a flower, to admire a night sky, or to like a crystal. But as in the arts, getting to know the artist and his techniques add to the appreciation and understanding of her work - may that be the Fermat's principle, data compression, self-organization, Noether's theorems or chaos. Mathematics is the language of Nature and learning it is your connection to the universe. No more and no less.
Since I acknowledge that the selection of maths taught at school is, sadly, suboptimal to this end, I set out to explain to my midwife that statistics is essential to understand the studies she's been telling me about and a doctor should indeed know what a standard deviation is. And being familiar with the exponential function might explain the funny face I made when she recommended some homeopathic remedy in D10. Things went downhill from there.