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Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Means and the Ends of Math


This Sunday's reflection comes from Ben Orlin of the "Math With Bad Drawings" blog. He penned these lines after attending the 2014 Joint Math Meetings:
"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."

...And this morning over at MathTango, Ben answers my questions for Math-Frolic Interview #27.
You'll enjoy it.


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