I’m sitting here writing this while on a break from Maths Camp. I don’t know what moreI cando to preach the virtues of mathematics than the simple act of stating that there exists such a thing as a Maths Camp. Doesn’t even seem worthwhile to continue writing. But I will, because the editors told me to write 700 words, and I don’t fancy incurring their wrath.
Before I begin my critical exegesis, let me give you a bit of background, because, let’s face it, you probably have no fucking idea what it is a mathematician even does. We’re not all teachers, I haven't touched a protractor in years, and I suck at my times tables. Hell, I barely ever use numbers in the first place. However, I do understand all of the jokes on The Big Bang Theory, and I can also tell you the best strategy to take if you ever want to win a goat on a game show. Two more compelling reasons to study mathematics.
Maths itself is made up of three broad disciplines. You've got your applied mathematicians, who deal with tangible questions like 'What's the best way to manage traffic flow?' and 'How are we going to minimise the number of people that die from the spread of this disease?' They spend most of their time finding solutions to real life problems arising in other fields. This involves a lot of mathematical modelling, deriving and solving messy equations.
Then there are the pure mathematicians. They live firmly in the world of the abstract and speak mostly in unintelligible code. Some of their work is applied to cryptographic systems, such as those used in internet banking. Pure maths also helped researchers prove that any Rubik’s Cube can be solved in at most twenty moves. Nifty, huh? These guys are also responsible for some of the research that could be regarded as generally ‘not useful’, such as the three-volume Principia Mathematica, which tried to build up the fundamentals of mathematics using only a small set of axioms about set theory. By page 379, they’d managed to prove that 1+1=2, an occasionally useful fact.
Applied and pure mathematicians have a strange rivalry. The guys over in pure think they're better because they work in a more elegant field, and their research is notionally more difficult. The guys in applied revel in the fact that they're solving tangible problems with real world outcomes. Plus, they have a hope of actually getting a job.
Last of all, you have the statisticians, who’s salaries shit all over those of any other mathematicians. This field is all about the collection, analysis, and organisation of data. Work done by statisticians varies from highly theoretical questions, to more practical data analysis. A lot of the time, they want to make predictions about the future, based on data that has been collected.
One piece of advice: build up a good relationship with your fellow students, lecturers and other staff in the school. They are, for the most part, great people. There’s barely a suit in sight (indeed, you’re more likely to see someone wandering the halls barefoot) and the attitude is equally casual. Case in point, the head of school has a ponytail halfway down his back.
Back to the degree though. Maths courses typically follow the same tried and tested format: weekly or fortnightly assignments or tutorials, maybe a mid semester test, and then an exam worth most of your grade. So be forewarned - you always have an assignment to do, or an exam to revise for. This can get wearisome.
Ultimately though, the reason I’ve stuck at it for so long is the simple fact that maths is a little bit like magic. Maths has shown that if you have a hairy ball, it’s impossible to comb it flat without creating a cowlick. Maths has given us the best strategy to take in the event of a zombie outbreak (only aggressively attacking zombies will prevent the collapse of society). Maths has shown that it’s possible to find the area of a wacky shape using only the perimeter (that doesn’t sound exciting, but it’s pretty crazy). Maths has shown that it’s possible to take a solid ball, split it into a finite number of pieces, and reassemble those pieces to obtain two identical copies of the original ball. Oh, and maths has shown that you can take a wobbly table and get all four legs to touch the ground by rotating it on the spot (Intermediate Value Theorem, bitches). Trust me, it's all just a little bit fancy.
Right, now I’m going back to Maths Camp to get drunk and talk about the ways to win a game of noughts and crosses, if played on a Möbius Strip. That’s how cool I am.
Originally published in On Dit volume 79.1