I Believe in Mathematics

Norman - Basel, Switzerland
Entered on February 19, 2009
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: science

I believe in Mathematics. Not simply the fact that one plus one equals two – but that Mathematics is a language, capable of expressing certain ideas, relationships and truths with a clarity and beauty all its own.

This belief first began at age ten when I learned that the circumference of every circle, whether big or small, is equal to its diameter multiplied by the number known as Pi, whose value is approximately 3.14. With that fact (and a few others) I spent a quiet Sunday afternoon in 1963 using paper and pencil to calculate the speed of the Earth as it circles the Sun. My final result, 18.5 miles per second, was about equal to the distance from my home in Northwest Philadelphia to the Philadelphia International Airport, traveled in the time between two heart beats. That sure was fast; especially compared to the 40 minutes it took by car to get there on the so called “Expressway”. And when I found a similar value for the “Speed of the Earth” in a dusty World Book encyclopedia from the school library (no internet in those days), my heart was beating even faster.

I could believe in Mathematics! It was something you could count with and count on. It was consistent, objective and powerful. Even a kid could figure out “cosmic things” with it.

As a teenager I discovered the beauty and mysteries hidden in the numbers themselves; like the connection between the Fibonacci series and the “Golden Ratio” or the repeating palindromic sequences contained in the continued fraction representation of the square root of N. And, like a teenager, I became obsessed with these forms and still am to this day. “What a nerd!”, as my daughters have often told me.

As a “twenty-something” I learned how physicists, like Newton and Einstein, had used the language of mathematics to describe forces, acceleration, energy and mass, as in the famous equations F=ma and E=mc2. At the same time I studied physiology and medicine and came to believe that mathematics also could be used to describe the workings of the human body, from the production of white blood cells to the formation of cholesterol gallstones.

Today, after more than 56 trips around the Sun, I work with scientists from many countries using mathematics to help develop new medications for treating diabetes and heart disease. And yes, I still believe in mathematics – its consistency, its beauty and its power as a universal language.