Friday, October 16, 2009

What math is used for...

When I first got out of college, in 1979, I wanted to do something with my math degree besides teaching. I knew I wanted to eventually become a teacher, but I figured I'd be a better teacher if I had a deeper understanding of what math is used for.

I think I had an interview at that time at Bechtel. (It was someplace with more security than I'm accustomed to.) I know I thought a lot about how most of the employers who might want my talents were doing things I didn't approve of. Code-breaking sounded fascinating, but back then code-breaking meant working for the government (or so I thought), and I was no happier then than I am now about my government's warring tendencies.

I ended up doing some computer programming for a very small company. It was business reports - not very exciting, but nothing terrible, either. After a bit more than a year, the company folded, and I headed toward teaching.

I haven't had to think about this issue much in the 30 years since then. I've seen much broader uses of math, and coding-breaking has come to be identified more with information security than with espionage. But of course the war-makers are still big employers of mathematicians, and that was made clear to me this morning by a post that looked really fun at first.

Liz, at STEM-ology, posted It's a Math World, After All, about a cool new 'ride' at Disney World called Sum of All Thrills, that lets kids (and adults?) design their own ride, and then "experience it on a giant robotic arm simulator." (It reminded me of the turtle geometry I was just reading about in Mindstorms.) I loved it!

But then I followed her link to the original Yahoo article, and saw this:
"Sum of All Thrills" sponsor Raytheon has nothing to offer the average consumer. But the high-tech defense and homeland security contractor does have jobs for those passionate about engineering...

I wasn't planning on going to Disney World any time soon, but Disneyland was the high point of a big trip my family took when I was 12, and I might be willing to take my son some day. This is a reminder to me of how much corporate propaganda is built into places like that. My comment on Liz's blog ended with "That's a show-stopper for me. War-mongers get way too much access to our children, and I have a problem with that..."

Have any of you struggled with math's less wholesome uses?


  1. How about not insuring people whose weight is beyond 2 standard deviations?

  2. What this makes me think of is a particularly tragic moment in G. H. Hardy's Mathematician's Apology which is already a pretty tragic book. He says "There is one comforting conclusion which is easy for a real mathematician. Real mathematics has no effects on war. No one has yet discovered any warlike purpose to be served by the theory of numbers or relativity, and it seems very unlikely that anyone will do so for many years." (p. 140) He wrote that in 1940 and the atom bomb fell in 1945.

    You know, though, I don't have qualms about it myself, any more. I used to, back when I felt like I had to choose between serious mathematics and some sort of more social and civic life. I remember being in high school or maybe early college, thinking, "if I stick with math, I'll end up in an esoteric tower somewhere and won't be connected to the world and won't have any guarantee that my work will do anyone any good or even fail to hurt anyone." But now I have a much richer understanding of what mathematics is and it no longer feels like I have to choose. Doing serious mathematics now feels central to my practice as an educator. This has somehow resolved the issue of how I feel about math's uses:

    I feel like it's like a mountain. My job is to glorify the mountain and empower people by taking them on hikes. Later someone may try use a trail up the mountain to reach a goldmine and use the gold to finance a war. I'll try to stop them from doing this, but because it's bad, not because I spend my time showing people the mountain.

    Did that make any sense at all?

  3. Thank you both! Yes Ben, it makes sense. The struggle I was asking about was not really about studying math, but getting jobs outside academia in which math is used for 'bad' purposes. (We each define bad in our own ways.) But I see the struggle you're talking about is just as important to grapple with.


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