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The pains of being good at math

Brooks Smith | Wednesday, February 9, 2011

I dread every conversation that begins with “What’s your major?” and have toyed with the idea of picking a more socially acceptable major, such as medicine or law.

After all, once I mention math, the jig is up. Eyebrows raise, foreheads wrinkle and then comes the inevitable next question: “What can you do with that?” Apparently one of the things I cannot do with math is: Have a good conversation.

With people my age, of course, there’s no implied pejorative in having a “useless” major. This is because most college students are in the same boat — marking time till their forced ejection into adulthood. But with older people, say relatives or potential employers, there is an undeniable tone of disapproval in the fact that I am seemingly wasting valuable resources — social, monetary, environmental — by educating myself about such a manifestly worthless and uninteresting subject. Coming from these mouths, “What can you do with that?” really means “What right do you have to exist?”

Never mind that the American economy sustains many people far more useless and annoying than myself — 3OH!3, say, or Paris Hilton — in a manner vastly disproportionate to their redeeming social value (or lack thereof). And it is a curious fact that these interrogators, looking sternly down their noses at me, never seem to have thought too long or hard about the value of their own contributions to American society.

But these are secondary considerations. So let me play my favorite game, devil’s advocate, for a moment. Why do I want to do math? If it offers little direct assistance to the survival of the human race, it offers even less to mine. I will never be rich (despite repeated entreaties from various family members to use my “giant brain” to make millions playing the stock market or Texas Hold ‘Em). I will, to say the least, enjoy no reproductive advantages over my peers. Add the additional burden of fielding repeated questions about the utility or value of my chosen life’s work, and you have a recipe for … what?

One answer I’ve been fond of recently is the “argument from global competition,” which is that Americans are more poorly educated in math and science than people in other countries (including China and Russia) and that I’m going to devote myself to bridging the gap. This argument is a particularly sharp rhetorical tool because it subtly turns the tables on interrogators who have mentioned their own disgust with, or lack of aptitude for, mathematics. It implicitly accuses those who are mathematically illiterate and proud of it of contributing to our eventual takeover by the Communists.

But to be honest I don’t have a great deal of personal investment in our country vanquishing other countries, academically, militarily or otherwise. The unvarnished truth about my relationship to mathematics is that I enjoy doing it, and get the same aesthetic pleasure from a beautiful, well-proven theorem that I get from a Van Gogh painting or Shakespeare play. I could pontificate about the symmetry, elegance, and artistry that goes into a well-written piece of mathematics. I could write an immaculately sourced 10 page paper in MLA format proving that famous mathematicians live on in the historical record and retain name recognition (via textbooks or theorem names) much longer than their athlete, celebrity or even political/military counterparts. I could even state the obvious, which is that without advancements in ‘pure,’ ‘abstract’ mathematics, many of the technologies which we now enjoy would not even exist. But I’m sure everyone knows that.

So my actual, personal answer to the question “What can you do with pure math?” is “Make a lasting contribution to human knowledge, with important consequences for math, physics, engineering and technology that will only be apparent 50-100 years after you, my interrogator, have passed away, and in the process achieve a modest immortality. A life spent in the pursuit and contemplation of eternal verities sounds pretty good to me, even if that is not a type of career satisfaction which you, my interrogator, can understand.” With any luck, this long-winded, confrontational, unanswerable response will at the very least convince questioners to make small talk with someone else.

Or startle them into forgetting the equally unanswerable follow-up, which is, “How will math pay off your student loans?”

Brooks Smith is a senior studying honors mathematics at the University of Notre Dame. He can be contacted at bsmith26@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.