Or, the Many Uses of Uselessness
One of the joys of being married to a pure mathematician—other than finding coffee-stained notebooks full of integrals lying around the flat—is hearing her try to explain her job to other people.
“Are there…uh… a lot of computers involved?”
“Do you write equations? I mean, you know, long ones?”
“Do you work with really big numbers?”
No, sometimes, and no. She rarely uses a computer, traffics more with inequalities than equations, and—like most researchers in her subfield—considers any number larger than 5 to be monstrously big.
Still, she doesn’t begrudge the questions. Pure math research is a weird job, and hard to explain. (The irreplaceable Jordy Greenblatt wrote a great piece poking fun at the many misconceptions.)
So, here’s this teacher’s feeble attempt to explain the profession, on behalf of all the pure mathematicians out there.
Q: So, what is pure math?
A: Picture mathematics as a big yin-yang symbol. But instead of light vs. dark, or fire vs. water, it’s “pure” vs. “applied.”