The Hidden Gems of Mathematics (1 of 4)

Do you consider math your ally or your enemy? If you feel math is against you rather than fighting for you, I want to change your perspective. Or, perhaps math isn’t quite as exciting as it used to be and you need a little “math love.’ If math were a tree, would it be giving you fruit or only requiring you to prune? This is part 1 of a 4-part series where I try to change your perspective on math, or at least give your math energy a boost so you can attack your next math challenge with a fresh perspective. As you know, there are many branches of mathematics. To gain new perspective on the branches, let’s take a journey through some of the roots of math. In this blog, I’ll share a little bit about my story and explain why you should even care about math. In the next 3 blogs, I will share stories that go deeper into the math root tree.

One of my favorite gifts was a license plate I received from my staff at Coaching Actuaries several years ago. As you can see, it reads “I do math.”

I was a math major in college and I’ve always enjoyed math. Since college I became an actuary and started a business. So, math became more about solving business problems. But, in February 2017, my view of math changed. It changed when my sister gave me a book on the history of prime numbers. Ironically, I usually don’t read history books, so reading a book about the history of prime numbers seemed, well, odd (slight pun there!). I gave the book a shot. The more I read, the more I enjoyed and the more I learned. It’s easy to buy books on Amazon, and soon I was addicted to finding the next best math history book. I surprised myself because (1) I was not expecting to enjoy history, and (2) I was not expecting to learn as many life lessons as I did.

I thought other actuaries and mathematicians may benefit from a highlight of what I read. So I’m choosing three mathematicians who have impacted me the most. I would rather choose 30, but I want to make this easy to digest. The impact from these three has been strong enough that I’m willing to label them as three of my heroes. I will devote one blog for each hero. As I share stories of these mathematicians, I’ll share a few lessons I learned from their lives. I’ll also share resources you can explore if you’re interested.

If you’re not fully convinced these next three blogs are worth your time, let me share three more reasons.

First, mathematics is not just an incredible topic. It’s everywhere. I see math as nuggets of surprise hidden in life and adding spice to life. You can train yourself to find these nuggets by simply looking. Just the other day, a soccer ball (football ball for non-Americans) caught my attention. I’ve seen soccer balls hundreds of time. But, this time, I notice the shapes and patterns. I wondered why and how. I wondered why there are 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons. Then, I recalled a formula by Euler and used a little algebra and suddenly I knew why. I’ll never look at soccer balls the same way again. We’ll learn more about Euler in my next blog. If you find this interesting, this short video provides the details.

Second, you may have had a bad experience with math. Perhaps you struggled with math in school. We shouldn’t view math just as numbers, formulas, and problems. Math is much more. Math is about connecting ideas, uncovering patterns, and finding relationships. It’s about growing in empathy from the surprises as you discover new perspectives. Math is also about people. People who learned from others and weren’t afraid to ask interesting questions.

You could say there are two parts to all math. First, you must identify the problem, or if you prefer, identify the mystery. Second, you must solve it. Most people are given the problem and only see math as the second part. If we only see math as solving problems, it can quickly become a chore. But the real fun is identifying fresh problems, fresh mysteries. Mathematicians give themselves permission to pause and ponder what is and what could be. There are interesting questions everywhere to be asked if you have the right perspective. Then, we improve our math skills so we can solve problems we care about, not just those on a test or in a textbook.

Third, you may wonder why learning about three mathematicians (who lived before the lightbulb was invented) could make your life better. Sometimes living in a world of technology has its downside. We have so little time to stop and think. More accurately, we choose to invest so little time to stop and think. Less can be more. These mathematicians had less, much less. Less time, less technology, and fewer resources. Yet they changed the world much more than I will, by far.

There’s a debate as to whether math is discovered or invented. It’s probably some of both. I’ll often use the word “discovered” primarily to be consistent. But I’m not trying to analyze whether each new math idea is a discovery or invention, just enjoying the beauty and the journey.

I realize actuarial students have their learning plates full preparing for the exams. I tried to keep this short and easy for all. My goal is for the next three blogs to give you a fresh perspective on math. But even if you don’t read the blogs, you can still find the hidden treasures. Either way, I encourage you to slow down and smell the math.