Math is never just about the numbers

By Nijesh Upreti

Would you give up writing just because you didn’t know how to spell? Is spelling just another dimension of writing? Writing has so much more to it. Some people might be good at articulating their thoughts but bad at grammar.

Mathematics is another discipline with similar sub-dimensions; the art of numbers is just one aspect of the many dimensions of mathematics that constitute the discipline.

I recently read a book called “The Man Who Knew Infinity.” It was about Srinivasa Ramanujan, a genius mathematician who died very young at the age of 32. Many of us have never heard his name, let alone his works. His extraordinary story has to do with his approximately 4,000 formulas, scribbled on three notebooks and some scrap paper, which have kept many mathematicians baffled for a century.

Ramanujan, being an autodidact, not only changed the way we think about mathematics but also brought us a new perspective with the religious mystery of his mathematical ability.

This often surprised atheist mathematicians like G.H. Hardy. Hardy, another genius mathematician, was always proud of his discovery of Ramanujan. He often would talk about how Ramanujan complemented his mathematical feat, and their religious versus non-religious collaboration was the most remarkable story in mathematics.

Mathematics can have many roots, as in Ramanujan—hardy case, religious vs. non-religious—but roots have the least to do with the domain itself. Regardless of where one comes from, mathematics always has specific routes to trail along.

Ramanujan’s story is inspirational in the sense that things that we take for granted, such as the availability of pen or pencil and paper, were not as easily accessible to him. For him to own paper to write on would have been a great privilege in his poverty.

There are accounts of his hands bleeding because of the friction between the slate and his hand while trying to erase his calculations. Such was his perseverance and passion for mathematics that, despite his bleeding hands, he would continue. Ramanujan is definitely a hero for the kind of feeling he inspires in me.

Advancements in computer science have given us the ability to peek into Ramanujan’s mind, as well as his formulas pertaining to modern physics and other sciences, in unthinkable ways. New computer programs that can manipulate algebraic quantities have made his way of thinking more accessible to mathematicians who want to understand his method of thinking.

Mathematics is a difficult language to get hold of but once one is able to enter into its realm, the way of thinking one is bestowed with is immense. To many, mathematics has been a problem for the feeling of neutrality it carries. Numbers do not have emotional dynamics as words do. The communication that numbers bring is cold, as they has no colors of expression in them. Two is just two, regardless of who counts it.

But there are other people to whom mathematics communicates better than any other language. Daniel Tammet, a high-functioning savant, says that his ability to feel and work with mathematics come from an injury to his head. When someone reads out numbers to Tammet, his brain responds to it with a different set of stimuli. There are feelings connected to each number and each number has its own color.

For the most part, a misconception that often takes away mathematics’ real charm is that it is considered a discipline of numbers. Numbers are just one dimension of the vast repository of mathematics.

If someone is not good with numbers, they might think mathematics is not for them. But a better understanding of mathematics as a discipline is that it has much less to do with quantized numbers.

Most of mathematics consists of ideas and ways of thinking about problems. Mathematics explains the module of formation or functioning of a system with condensed expressions that can be encrypted and decrypted by other mathematicians. It is a language like every other, through which one can argue, express, identify, exchange and understand.

Mathematics is the jewel of human inventiveness for the abilities of visualization and model building that it develops in us. We are all governed by mathematics in unthinkable ways. Even the way we see and recognize objects and figures or faces has some kind of mathematics involved.

How do we know how far an object is from us? We do not hit every person whom we pass on the road. How is it possible? This certainly is about the way our brain and eyes can interact to give us a sense of proximity to something. Mathematics is at the core of human interaction, be it consciously or unconsciously driven.

Galileo once described mathematics as being the language in which the laws of nature were written. With modern developments, we are getting close to saying that the functioning of any system is mathematical. There is a Ramanujan within each one of us, as everyone is mathematically guided.

Following Galileo’s trend, “All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.” When the Hardy in us discovers the existence of Ramanujan within, we will definitely develop a new perspective to look at mathematics. But an important thing to do would be not to give up mathematics just for the sake of superstition that tells us that numeracy is all that mathematics is.

Thus, the inability to get along with numbers should never be an impediment to one’s mathematical growth. In fact, we are all mathematicians in that we visualize situations, recognize faces, spaces and objects, and respond to them accordingly. The mathematics of ideas is as integral to mathematics as is the mathematics of numbers; the next time you hear somebody say they aren’t good at mathematics, remind them of the Ramanujan who is yet to be discovered.