Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Math In Real Life

I attended the parent math forum at my children's school today. It was interesting. One of the aspects I am thinking of, as I mull over the information we were given, was that the only applications that were mentioned for math in a 'real life' context were cooking (I obviously love that one...), money and time.
Time and money. That is why we need a solid understanding of numbers and how they work. I don't recall a connection to science or nature presented as one of the applications.

One might think this connection would be 'natural' (pun intended), but maybe our lives are so removed from all things nature now, that this is a stretch? What a loss. Nature is full of patterns - some are rediscovered by wicked smart engineers after much complicated optimization. In fact I'll steal their picture to make my point:

"Solar power research looks to sunflowers for optimum layouts"
Another cool nature headline recently showed the first discovery of gears (proportional functions!) in a living being:
A scanning electron micrograph image of the gears. Credit: Malcolm Burrows
If that doesn't blow your mind, what will? And we engineers (a little full of ourselves, as we can be) thought we had invented gears, when we really only re-invented them, never mind manufactured them on a micron-scale...

I've picked out two high-flying examples. Obviously, nature can teach us many more concepts, some simple, some mind-blowingly awesome and complex, if we learn to sharpen our skills of observation, patience (through the seasons, for example...) and analysis. Nature has a lot of symmetry, and other geometrical concepts: Bees always build hexagons - why? Snowflakes always have six points - why? Many plants and animals are made of two almost-symmetrical sides - why? Nature has negative numbers (temperature!) - but not always (concentrations! populations!).  I mentioned patterns already but I can't resist showing some pictures from this site, just because they're amazing. A growing pattern, a repeating pattern, and the last one even has two patterns, one way in structure, the other way in color. How much there is to see if you know how to look (oh! microscopes! multi-faceted lenses to make you see the way bees do! ... I'm getting side tracked already)


And these are just elementary school level concepts - you can tell I could probably go on for a long time, going off on all sorts of tangents.... Nature is endless, exciting and the best teacher.

Of course on the same day, I see this ad that convinces children of the opposite (you can protest here). Some days I'm just floored how far away from the mainstream my 'normal' seems to be. If we raise our children with such disrespect for nature and science, how will we ever raise a next generation that is able to rise to the challenges that climate change, environmental destruction and the resulting disruption of the food system, the water system, and really, pretty much every other system out there, will pose?

Let's make sure that money and time are not the only examples of 'math in real life' for our children.


  1. you should read one of my favorite books, a classic: D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's On Growth and Form. Blows your mind! He explains why the narwhal's tusk is twisted, in 1942. Lots of other marvels, some now disproved but still marvelous.
    Hate the ad. Protested.
    Hurrah for Nature and Science!

    1. I'll talk to Santa about that book :-)