By Jamie Buchan,
Author of Easy as Pi: The Countless Ways We Use Numbers Every Day
“World War II? I don’t know much about it. You’ve lost me. I’m sorry, I was always terrible at history. I just don’t have the brain for it!”
Few people would willingly admit to this level of ignorance about key events that shaped the world. But when it comes to math — which shapes not only the world but the entire universe — many otherwise highly intelligent and educated people will happily proclaim ignorance. In many cases, there’s the implication that math is boring and difficult — the exclusive domain of the severely geeky.
This may seem merely frustrating for mathematicians and scientists in social settings, but it has serious and wide-ranging consequences. On an everyday level, a lack of confidence about math makes it hard to split a bill, work on a spreadsheet, or help a child with homework (and this can easily become a vicious circle, since anxiety about math can be passed on to the next generation).
If you feel like you’re math averse, be not afraid: the book Easy as Pi can help. Math itself is based on a limited number of very logical rules and, whether we like it or not, it surrounds us in everything we do. As Pythagoras (the guy behind the famous Theorem) remarked: “Number is the ruler of forms and ideas, and the cause of gods and demons.” The head of a sunflower has evolved with mathematical precision into a double-spiral pattern that packs the most seeds into the smallest available space. The computer on which you’re reading this, and every electronic device — from cheap digital watches counting seconds and minutes to NASA’s Columbia supercomputer, which simulates the collisions of entire galaxies — is powered by a vastly complex system of ones and zeros, which only works at all because they can be interpreted mathematically.
Just like our explorations of science, humanity’s understanding of math has advanced amazingly since we were counting how many mammoth hides it takes to wallpaper a cave. The concept of zero — a number representing nothing — is taken for granted today (apart from anything else, how could all that electronics work otherwise?). However, for centuries it was a thorny philosophical and mathematical question. Roman numerals stopped being used in Europe when medieval Italians learned the zero from the Arabs, who in turn had picked it up from India. The ancient Greeks gave us much of our understanding of geometry, and the Romans put it into practice with structural engineering. We’ve come a long way. The Pirahã tribe, a few hundred people living in a remote area of Brazil, reminds us just how far — with almost no contact with outside cultures, their math is limited to counting “one, two, many.”
Numbers have also slipped into our language and culture in various ways — the third degree, the fourth estate, and fifth columnists spring to mind. And have you ever been asked to “deep six” something? Intelligence agencies use “numbers stations” — radio stations broadcasting strings of numbers — to communicate in code with spies in other countries. And they’ve gained a cult following of fascinated civilian listeners. The controversial conviction of the Cuban Five came after FBI agents found a decryption program for a Cuban numbers station on their computers.
The influence of numbers in our everyday life also seeps into our superstitions. The number 666 — still feared by many people as the “number of the beast” — is believed to be based on gematria, a form of numerically encoding Hebrew words, which is also at the root of claims about a “Bible code.” Math anxiety and ignorance allows people who practice numerology and astrology to make a lot of money by claiming to imbue numbers with a spiritual and cosmic significance. Not only is this completely unproven, it masks the far greater beauty of a mathematically ordered universe.
To sum it all up, math and numbers are everywhere, and they are embedded in our lives in every respect. Anxiety about them is really worth trying to overcome. The benefits they bring us are countless.
© 2010 Jamie Buchan, author of Easy as Pi: The Countless Ways We Use Numbers Every Day
Jamie Buchan was educated at Westminster School and is completing a Master of Arts degree in Architectural Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Many of his family members are involved in books: his great-grandfather John Buchan is the prolific novelist famous for The Thirty-Nine Steps; his grandfather D.J. Enright is a well-known Movement poet; and his uncle James Buchan is an award-winning novelist and historical writer. Both of his parents work in publishing.
My gratitude to FSB Associates for providing me and my readers with this wonderful piece written by Jamie Buchan.
My review of Easy As Pi, shall be posted soon.