Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Math Makes Our World Work

I saw a brief video on New Scientist and it made me think of the movie The Matrix.  Inside the Matrix, everything Neo saw was the product of a vast program.  But outside the Matrix, the free people watched numbers trickle down their computer screens and knew the Matrix was all just math and lines of code.

The video is a quick overview of some of the formulas that enable our world to function.  Like citizens of the Matrix, we can't see these invisible math calculations, and yet they constantly take place all around us.

If you have a cellular telephone, you can't see the signal between the cell tower and the phone, yet you hear your friend's voice.  You can't see the signal your satellite TV dish receives, yet you watch your favorite team play.  And inside your house, the small router next to your computer sends out its unseen WiFi signal to your laptop, ereader or tablet. 

Math enables all these invisible transactions.

The video discusses waves because so many things we do involve the sending and receiving of signals in wave form, like radio.  To enable this, we needed the contributions of mathematicians Fourier, Bernoulli and d'Alembert, plus Maxwell's work on electricity and magnetism.  They in turn used principles of physics from Newton.  Each generation builds on the hard work of those who came before.

So next time you use your cell phone, realize that math is useful for all sorts of cool things.  And encourage those around you to learn more about math.

(The pic is from the Matrix Online game from back in about 2005.  Found here at IGN.  Also Wolfram Alpha has the actual equations, but not much explanation.)


  1. Realizing that math is at the core of so many aspects of our world often makes me feel a bit dumb. There is a portion of people that use very high level math as a tool for solving everyday problems or making everyday products and inventions. You mention simple cell phone calls as a good example. The movie “Apollo 13” hints at the precise math that allows NASA to navigate the various gravitational fields of planets, moons, and the Sun. Not an everyday problem but an impressive one. There is also the math involved in allowing a picture to be sent to a printer which then directs a spray of ink towards a charged area of paper so that a tiny yellow blob will stick there and a tiny red blob will stick right next to it, and so forth. Or even simpler, how about the math used for my computer to tell your computer to show this smiley face on your screen : )
    The list goes on: corporate investment decisions, government economic decisions, production decisions at a Ford plant, the transmission output to each wheel of a car when one makes a turn, lasik location and power output to an eye as a robot shoots a laser to permanently remove part of one’s cornea, the power company’s distribution of electricity, etc
    : ) Have a nice day!

  2. Olaf, thanks for adding more examples to the list. So many times in math we hear, "What am I ever going to use this for?" But if we can show students how math is the engine for so many cool things, maybe they'll realize its beauty and want to study it.