Take a mental journey with me: let’s go back to our ancestors shortly after the settlement into communities. Let’s say you raise goats while I grow wheat. We have an understanding and trade our surplus because we are good neighbors. My wheat farm is not doing well, but your goats thrive in this environment. Word around town says we’ve established a trading agreement with a nearby village and they have an excellent supply of wheat. Now, I can become a goat herder with you and our town can trade our goats for their wheat.
Unfortunately we’ve created a larger problem: since we are trading between communities, the amounts being exchanged are too large to approximate a trading value. Back when we were just trading between us, you could just run over to me to ask for more wheat if you were short. Now that we’re expanding our economy, it’s best to make sure neither us or them feel shorted in the trade. We had to create a representation of quantity that could be interpreted by many people to mean the same value.
Numbers arose in almost every community around the world, likely due to necessities with trading though we don’t have definitive evidence backing that claim. Regardless, the process of creating symbolic representation for quantities created two major systems.
One used symbols to represent specific values and could group those symbols together to show larger numbers. The Romans and Incas are two examples to develop this type. The other type used specific symbols to represent values 0-9 with an additional symbol signifying a magnitude of that base 10 system. The Chinese and Arabs developed this type and it’s how we represent numbers in most of the world today.
Given the ability to represent physical quantities as symbols, it was only a matter of time before our ancestors developed a method of manipulating those numbers with specific operations. Addition, the opposite of subtraction, and multiplication, the opposite of division, could be used to quickly manipulate numbers in order to give more information. That manipulation of numbers is what we call math and it’s so unbelievably important to the world we’ve created.
Math allows us to represent our world and then predict occurrences before we physically try them. Because of the accuracy of numbers, we began to develop tools to measure with great precision in order to work with the number itself. Math let us develop a system to manipulate forces to defy gravity in creating the great pyramids of Egypt. It also let us expand our communities by requiring citizens to pay some of their money to the leadership. Taxes are an essential part of human history and there is a lot of math that goes into them before they’re even issued.
Math is the language of science. Numbers are ideal and infinitely precise to allow for manipulation of any measurement. The manipulation of those numbers, based on measurement of the natural world, can predict outcomes of real events with impressive accuracy. Math, along with statistics, allows us to zoom out from the scale we are accustomed to. Usually we think in the scale of double digits before we stop trying to envision each individual. Think about a room with 20 people in it, now a room with 400; which one will you notice 5 additional people?
Zooming out and interpreting data in the hundreds and thousands allows us to visualize trends over time or throughout regions. That’s why math is the language of all sciences: no matter what you’re measuring, the math will be accurate to show larger trends and thus causality. Science must always follow reason and logic, no matter what the scientist wants to believe. Math will always reveal the truth, even if it’s not something the mathematician likes.
Despite math’s clear advantages, many people do not like to study it in school. Math, as it currently stands, requires a huge amount of brain functioning just to get started. First, you have to recognize a symbol and imagine that quantity of something so you know you’re dealing with an amount of something. People who have difficulty reading all the symbols or switching the order of symbols are drastically off from the actual value because of the accuracy of numbers. Someone who reads the number 12935 as 12395 is off by 540! That’s huge for such a simple mistake!
Another reason people don’t like to study math is because it seems to students an exercise with no purpose. Students, including myself, go to math class expecting to disconnect with the world and only think with theoretical numbers, but that’s not fun when you’re not good at manipulating numbers easily. We aren’t taught the applications of math skills to predict or manipulate our world and so they seem useless to us. It’s important to practice mental processing of numeric quantities in whichever way works best for you. If symbolic representation isn’t your cup of tea, maybe you can start out using colored blocks or picture representations like I did.
Even when it seems pointless and you don’t like your school for forcing you to learn math, take the information anyway. Even if it’s just to spite your teacher, take that information to help you in the future. Every time you work with numbers, remember that you are following in the footsteps of our ancestors who changed our planet from its natural state to the world you are a part of today. And they did it using math!