Saturday, January 20, 2007

Like it or not, math matters. A lot.

As science and technology penetrate ever more deeply into many spheres of public and private life, only the most die-hard of 'math-haters' will fail to appreciate the increasing role of mathematics in the development of our contemporary society. Early in my career as an urban and regional planner with a liberal arts background, it was necessary every now and then for me to fall back on earlier training in statistics and basic math in order to understand some of the more technical documents I came across in the course of my work.

With time, however, my job required me to deal increasingly with people from other disciplines including climate science, ecology, finance, energy. Then I found myself rapidly approaching the limit of what I can know--and do--about issues that fall outside my field. For example, I could barely follow the more technical aspects of climate science discussions because they routinely utilize the language of advanced mathematics, beyond the rudimentary knowledge and skills I had learned in my undergrad years.

The lesson was: any professional with a liberal arts background whose work intersects with climate change issues, needs to significantly upgrade his/her knowledge of advanced mathematics, or risk being lost in the conversation. At a more general level, one might argue that society as a whole stands to lose if the search for solutions to the complex problems facing us today are left in the hands of a relatively small group of "insiders." We need to democratize our problem-solving system by raising the general level of numeracy (as distinct from literacy) worldwide.

With these thoughts in mind, I began a long-term study of relevant topics in mathematics. Given my full-time job, I could not do this by enrolling in traditional classroom courses. And none of the online courses I came across satisfied my particular needs. On the other hand, I discovered hundreds of online tools and resources by which to teach myself what I needed to know. And it wasn't all work and no play. I have been pleasantly surprised at the number of fun things you can find in the math world, like this visualization of pi that was posted on Wikipedia today, and that guy who is claiming that he's found a solution to the troublesome zero.

In starting this blog, I hope to benefit from the "collective intelligence" of the Web in the form of readers comments and suggestions for locating the best math learning resources, interesting news and the like. It is a social learning experiment of sorts. I'm sure there are several people who also feel the need to improve their knowledge and skills in math for personal or professional reasons. May they find inspiration from my on-going account, and hopefully, (re) start their own journeys.

The problems facing humanity today are large, and currently revolve around human technology, society and nature relations. Many of these problems are best expressed in the language of mathematics; a language that many people do not understand mainly because they did not consider it relevant to their needs. But if one seeks to be part of the solution to the troubles we face, one needs to be able to communicate clearly in as many languages as possible, including mathematics. To know or not to be, that is the question.

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