Mathematics: A Universal Gift

In this article, Karlo Grobbelaar delves into the perception of Mathematics as difficult and beyond the abilities of the everyday man. He explores just a few of the ways in which mathematics is not only useful but integral in daily life. Read more about how Mathematics is the basis of all that surrounds us, and how we intentionally and unintentionally use this subject on a regular basis.  

Illustration by Tristan Barnard

The article provides an opportunity to reflect on ways in which mathematics may be more prominent in daily life than we realise. It also reminds the reader that while not everyone will find mathematics easy, it is still a field that we can all engage with.

For a long time, Mathematics has been the bane of many students’ existence, and many of them cannot wait until the end of the year to eagerly cast their textbooks into the fire and send them back to hell from whence they came. And then, there is a small minority who cannot quite fathom others’ loathsome quarrel with this sophisticated subject.

For a long time there has been this rumour that mathematics is too difficult for the common man. This is simply not true. Mathematics is a form of applied logic, and it is thus logical to infer that this stereotypes have distorted many people’s perception and experience with the subject, but it does not change the fact that it is something we can all try to harness.

Since the dawn of civilization, people have realized the importance of counting which led to arithmetic that has in turn been used by traders in the markets, craftsmen for measurements and even shepherds who had to count all their sheep to make sure that none were lost. For a long time, mathematics has been used to solve practical problems, and the notorious concept of algebra was only rigorously developed during the 9th century.  Although algebra is the core of abstract and pure mathematics, it helped people further to solve practical problems!

I am not suggesting that people do not use simple mathematical concepts or constructs in daily life – such as counting, arithmetic etc., but rather that more people can make use of advanced mathematical constructs. I vividly remember a question from my old high school textbook about a farmer trying to span a fence with a limited amount of wire, and we needed to calculate the maximum area of the spanned pen using the “completing the square”-method. The problem could just as easily be solved using differential calculus. Differential calculus is clearly vital for farmers!

Unfortunately, a lot of people have imbedded the mindset that they cannot perform the necessary mental gymnastics to solve for x or y, and in turn imbed this mindset to others as well. If we want people  to see the value of mathematics in their lives, we must first let them appreciate it as it is.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

 Many aspects of mathematics have an analytical and a geometric part, and the latter radiates brightly in nature. I cannot talk about maths in nature without mentioning the Fibonacci sequence, which appears in flowers and shells and population growth rates. Closely tied to this, is the golden ratio, which Da Vinci frequently used in many of his paintings to create perfect proportions.

Even abstract concepts like complex numbers were used to yield wonders such as the infamous Mandelbrot Set, and of course we have the whole field of statistics. There is a theorem in statistics called the Central Limit Theorem, which states that if you have enough random samples of data, the distribution of the data will roughly approximate a Normal Distribution, that is, a symmetric distribution with a bell-shape. The fact that these precise mathematical structures can model nature and human behaviour is, for me, evidence that mathematics is indeed the pencil God used to sketch the universe.

Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty” – Bertrand Russell

I believe that Operations Research is one area of Mathematics that most people will resonate with. It is an entire field of mathematics dedicated to finding optimal solutions to real world problems. We live in a world where problems are unavoidable. Mathematically speaking, the probability of encountering problems in your daily life is 100%. Mathematics can guide us towards effective solutions to our problems and  as a bonus, improve our problem-solving skills. Sometimes, we must think outside the box and create new ideas to solve our dilemmas. In fact, calculus was invented by Isaac Newton mainly to help him with problems in physics. If physics is not your thing, calculus is also used in statistics, economics, engineering, logistics, biology, medicine, and many other fields that may pique your interest.

Although there are a minority of people like me who appreciate the abstraction of math, and like to ponder on proofs, even those that appear to be quite rigorous, most people can benefit by the applications of mathematical concepts and constructs. The more we learn, and the deeper we delve into the mathematical rabbit hole, we can find that mathematics can be fun, and even weird, in instances like using principle of mathematical induction to prove that all horses are the same color, or to evaluate the sum of all natural numbers to a value of negative 1/12!

In high school, I always felt alone in my passion for mathematics. I was the only one competing in the Olympiads, and had to constantly listen to my friends talk about the thing I consider  hobby as being the cause of their downfall. Now at my university, they teach roughly 700 first year students integral calculus each year. I mathematically infer that countrywide  thousands of students learn integration every year, with many more worldwide. I feel less alone now, knowing that the mathematics forum on Reddit has 2 million members, and that the YouTube channel Numberphile, which is all about mathematics, has over 4 million subscribers. I rejoice in the fact that what I perceived as an insignificant minority is not so minor after all.

“Without mathematics, there’s nothing you can do. Everything around you is mathematics. Everything around you is numbers.” These are the words of mathematician Shakuntala Devi, an Indian woman best known as the “human computer”, and she is quite correct. There is, therefore, no reason for this long standing negative stigma against mathematics to endure. Mathematics is not something that is constrained by elitism but is, on the contrary, an inherently applicable instrument to be used and even, perhaps, mastered by everyone.

Karlo Grobbelaar

BSc Mathematical Sciences (2nd Year) Student at Stellenbosch University


  • DK, 2019. The Maths Book. 1 ed. London: Random Penguin House

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