39 Ways to Love Math

Last week, 6,000 mathematicians met in Baltimore. They crowded in conference rooms, swapped gossip over beers, and wherever free food appeared, they lined up like ants.

On a table in the hallway of the convention center, I stationed paper, markers, and the following invitation:

I got 39 replies, 39 tributes to math’s power—in short, 39 ways to love mathematics. In no particular order:

1. Love patterns. Love the hunt. Love that our thirst for patterns is so deep and instinctual that you might call it canine.

2. Love the underground tunnels connecting mathematics. Love that each topic in math is a subterranean river of insight, nourishing lands it scarcely seems to touch.

3. Love the explosion of brain.

4. Love the way math brings out the inner teenager in a professor.

5. Love the way math brings out the inner professor in a teenager.

Here, three high-school students used two sheets to explain their research from last summer. Fifteen years old, they’re already minting new coins for the great bank of human knowledge.

6. Love in-jokes. Love the fact that when you say “I’m a math major,” your classmates might scream, unprompted, “THE LIMIT DOES NOT EXIST!”

7-8. Love families. Love categories of diverse objects, all sharing the same property. Love graph theory.

9. Love physics. Love that math helps us grasp the world, not just with our fingers, but with our thoughts.

10. Love math’s bigness. Love that there’s always more math out there.

11. Love that math can happen anytime, anywhere. Love that it’s an art project of the mind, and your easel is always handy.

12. Love clarity. Love precision. Love the total absence of BS.

13-15. Love visualization. Love the proofs without the words.

16. Love silliness.

17. Love the journey. Love the dead ends, obstacles, and wrong turns—and love reaching the destination, finally.

18. Love biology, astronomy, language, music—and love that math that underlies them all.

19. Love symbols. Love the mystic poetry of numbers, letters and those other, funnier markings interspersed among them.

20-21. Love playing. Love that math gives us an excuse to play.

22. Love the ineffable.

23. Love insight. Love how the world changes, comes awake, comes alive, when you use math to understand it.

24. Love camaraderie. Love meetings of the minds.

25. Love the divine. Love the long tradition of seeing the patterns of mathematics as the fingerprints of something greater than us.

26. Love beauty. Love that math is a uniquely human pursuit.

27. Love the challenge. Love the way it pushes your mind.

28. Love simplicity. Love the clean divide between true and false.

29. Love adventure. Love the great unknown.

30. Love your thesis. Love things you discovered. Love rectangular tilings yielding planar binary trees.

31. Love squares being circles (under the right metric, of course). Love math turning your intuition inside out.

32. Love Fibonacci. Love music. Love quarter-notes separated by Fibonacci rests.

33. Love that it keeps your dad employed, and gives you an excuse to draw a “mathemakitten.”

34-35. Love a chance to use the Greek alphabet, without joining a frat.

36. Love that math creates reality, in more ways that one.

37-39. Love that math means 6,000 different things to 6,000 different people.

Here’s a thought that lingers with me. There’s a thin fault-line running through all our conversations about math. Is mathematics a means, or is it an ends?

On the one hand, math is a warehouse of applications, the world’s favorite toolkit. It enables the technologies and discoveries that have carried our species from caves to houses to rocket ships. In that sense, math is a means.

Math is also a self-contained realm of pure ideas. This doesn’t mean math is insulated from human activity; it means that math is a quintessentially human activity. Math is the pursuit of patterns, not necessarily for the sake of faster computers, but for the sake of the patterns themselves, for the sake of their elegance and beauty. In that sense, math is an ends unto itself.

The two camps sound irreconcilable. But really, these are just the happy and inherent contradictions of a pursuit that transcends even our most focused efforts to describe it.

Math is a means and an ends. It’s a world-changing toolkit and a beautiful world in its own right. Math belongs not just to mathematicians, but to scientists, engineers, financiers, actuaries, artists, even television writers. It belongs to teachers and students and infants learning to count. It belongs to the 6,000 humans who gathered in Baltimore, and to the 7 billion who didn’t.

Thanks to everybody who participated (or who resisted the urge to steal a lollipop as you walked by). Let me know if you’d like to receive credit here for your picture!

32 thoughts on “39 Ways to Love Math

  1. First of all, how did I not know about this meeting. I’m so close to Baltimore.
    Second of all, I love math because of the dimensions that it takes my brain to.

  2. Okay, am I mistaken in believing that in the Mean Girls scene you posted, the answer should be -1/2, not DNE?

    1. You made the same sign error I did the first time I did this – the derivative of ln(1-x) is -1/(1-x), so the answer after one use of L’Hopital’s Rule is -2/0, which DNE…

  3. Okay, about #12.

    First of all, an English paper entitled “Why I Hated X” deserves an F; the C- was pure grade inflation. Good English papers defend a thesis with evidence, just like good math papers or good history papers or good physics papers.

    Second, an English teacher giving a paper a C- because “I don’t agree with your opinions” is a betrayal of both teaching and scholarship. That’s not to say there aren’t English teachers who do things like that. There are also math teachers who say “It’s so because I say so”, generally a little better disguised.

    1. #12 is pretty depressing especially since plenty of math teachers will screw you if you dont show your work or use the kind of formatting they desire. STEM people have this weird idea that they are free from BS. it seems they feel that way because for most of the math/science people take (lower levels) there is always a single “right answer.” Th perception is that humanities subjects are just matters of opinion but obviously there is a right (conventional) answer in English of how to spell February. :/

  4. Lexington, Maine, and Dubai? A city, a state, and a country? It’s like they were meant to work together!

    1. I’m the one from Dubai… I can’t for the life of me figure out who ‘Brent’ is and how you know us!

      1. Ah, if you hold your mouse over the second picture you guys used, there’s a scroll-text mentioning your places of origin (since I couldn’t remember your names). That’s where Brent got the info.

        Anyway, thanks for reading the blog – I hope your poster presentation went well!

        1. Oh! Woah… looks like I need to stop reading these blogs on my phone. I must say, that’s excellent memory – and Lexington now messes with us, and occasionally demands we write everything.

          Thanks a lot, the poster session went great and meeting you/this blog made it all the better! Looking forward to more!

  5. Reblogged this on principalaim and commented:
    There was a gathering of math lovers last week in Baltimore, and the post that I am sharing is an example of the fruits of their labor. There are so many reasons to love math; here are 39! tlb

  6. I love all of these except number 12. As a math teacher whose best friend is an English teacher, and a huge Hemingway fan, I think this is being ungenerous. English teachers do not (or at least should not) downgrade students for disagreeing with them, but rather give poor grades for writing poorly and not supporting an opinion with evidence. Besides, without literature the equation 2 + 2 = 5 would have little meaning, but with it that equation speaks volumes about the human condition (if you don’t understand the reference, ask an English teacher).

  7. Mike & John: I agree that any English teacher grading like #12 is teaching more about despotism and bad scholarship than about writing and literature. And most English teachers are far better than that. Personally, I love a good English class just as much as a good math class.

    That said, there’s inevitably a greater subjective element in grading English than in grading math. It’s not phrased quite this way, I guess, but I read #12 sort of as a disguised hymn to the universality of mathematical truth, as opposed to the contingency and openness to debate of humanistic ones.

  8. thank you for including my bad drawing! wish I could have met you.

    hilary “abuses set theory” shi, #10

  9. I read a bit of John McLeary’s “Geometry from a Differentiable Viewpoint” and I like his speed, and his commitment to practical practice exercises. Did you learn anything new from him?

  10. hey mathematicians ppl, in the future use your your facking mathematic skill for us ( owner company) cause ppl like you ended to work under ppl who hate mathematic lol, fact or hoax ?? i don’t said every mathematician ended to be worker, i said most of them lol,
    we (owner company) love to count how much profit we make /day and you love to count how much salary you get from us mathematicians ppl #no_hard_feeling #fact_or_hoax

  11. Great blog. Math rocks, I’m actually just immersing myself into the maths. Avoided it for a while. However with a huge focus of my career as an investor being focused on consistency, statistics and figures. I’ve decided to actually love the maths and immerse myself into it. Here I come maths! Dam I excited. I’ve always known I’m a wiz at this thing. Just never applied my mind to it.

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