If you are asked to give an example of using mathematics in everyday life, most people will immediately think of dividing the bill in a restaurant, or possibly calculating percentages. For most of us, this kind of maths will not be a problem, but somehow the whole idea of maths has rather a negative connotation. That needs to change or data science will suffer, and we will all be worse off as a result.
But how can we change the image of maths? There is no obvious public holiday to link to it (which would inspire any employee, believe me). Fortunately, however, there are countless World or Action Days devoted to a specific topic. One of these is π-day, which is celebrated on March 14th. Why March 14th? π, you may remember, is 3.14. In the US, of course, where the date is given month first, and where π- day was first mooted back in 1988, March 14th is written 3/14. It also just happens to be the birthday of Albert Einstein, 139 years ago.
A cool dude?
Views on mathematics divide people, at least in Germany. Some people feel that the subject blighted their school career. Maths-bashing has a long history, and hating maths was always more cool. It is, perhaps, both understandable and bizarre that nobody asks any questions when mathematical statements are used. What, for example, does it mean when the weather forecast says: “The probability of rain tomorrow is 30%“?
I will be honest. I liked maths at school, and I also got good grades. But even I have to admit that the whole subject became very abstract and not very practical. So you can deduce and prove the Fourier series, but so what? What is its practical application? I suppose you could use them in interpreting electrocardiograms or ECGs, because these certainly derive from Fourier series. If you want a laugh, though, just ask any doctor whether they use Fourier series to interpret ECGs (and if they think any patient would trust a doctor who did).
You may be wondering where all this is going. My question is whether we are really teaching the right things in mathematics any more. I don’t mean that we should stop teaching the basics, like multiplication, fractions, percentages and so on. Those are too important. What I mean is that what we need to know changes over time. For example, my grandmother knew how to bake bread without a recipe. I don’t, and I don’t need to. I could look it up if I needed to, but generally I just buy bread.
There are some aspects of mathematics that are becoming increasingly important in a data-driven world, but which are not commonly taught. Data science depends on maths, and we need to learn how to properly handle predictions, statistics, and reports. We need to make maths come alive for students, and what better way than with real use cases? Why not ask students at school to analyse WhatsApp chats: how many entries in the group, who is involved, how many pictures are there, who has which ones, when is peak time in the group, can I tell whose cell phone had been confiscated as a punishment? I think that would spark interest! Let’s not just talk about digitization, let’s do it!
Back to π-day: how would you celebrate it? With pie, of course, and naturally, the party would start at exactly 1:59:26 (π being 3.1415926...)