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[Op-Ed] The Power of Mathematics

Posted December. 17, 2008 08:36,   


A large number of films and TV dramas feature mathematical theories and numbers. “Jurassic Park,” which revolves around chaos theory, is considered a classic in this regard. “Cube,” about a game of survival game in a cubic room, tests the audience’s mathematical capacity. In the story of the MIT blackjack team as described in the movie “21,” the “Monty Hall” problem, or a probability puzzle loosely based on the American television game show “Let`s Make a Deal,” appears. According to the magazine Popular Science, the four major U.S. TV networks aired 15 prime-time dramas featuring math and science last year.

The Greek philosopher Plato was so infatuated with math, he said, “God is a geometrician.” Math requires abstract thinking and clear logic and has been the bedrock of human civilization. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell said that when humans realized “two” was a common denominator between “two stones” and “two sheep,” the dawn of human civilization arrived. Math continues to change the world behind the scenes. From finance to information technology to marketing, many sectors utilize numbers. Financial derivatives that triggered the global financial crisis were devised by mathematicians.

It is tragic that this useful discipline has been neglected as impractical in school curricula. The U.S. bipartisan National Security Council warned in 2001 that neglect of math education will threaten national security. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates also stressed the importance of math education last year to Congress. Noting the lack of talent in math and science, Gates said the nation’s survival is uncertain if the United States fails to import talented people in the two fields. Though Gates dropped out of Harvard University, his major was mathematics.

In Korea, the Education, Science and Technology Ministry said that from 2012, infinitesimal calculus and statistics will be included in the math section of the College Scholastic Aptitude Test for high school students majoring in liberal arts. This is a belated but correct decision. The older generation learned infinitesimal calculus in high school even if they belonged to the liberal arts department. Today, however, even high school students in the science department can opt out of infinitesimal calculus. Park Kyeong-mi, a professor of math education at Hongik University in Seoul, cites the usefulness of infinitesimal calculus in a wide range of areas from cosmic theory to atomic movement and weather forecasts to consumer price index. If everyone realized how mathematics has changed the world, everyone would become an advocate for math education. German mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss said, “Mathematics is the queen of the sciences and arithmetic is the queen of mathematics.” His comments deserve attention.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)