I’ve been asked countless times in the past – “what’s the point of maths?” Faced with this question many mathematicians will probably give a list of reasons about why maths is so important and how it can be used in society for this and that in order to convince the questioner of the point in the existence of mathematics and of the virtues of studying mathematics or numeracy.

I feel differently; I don’t feel at all inclined to do that. But surely as a maths tutor isn’t it my duty to inspire and recruit to the ranks of mathematicians? Yes it is my duty to inspire whenever I can and inform people about mathematics but if someone doesn’t want to be convinced then they won’t be. Some people call football ‘the beautiful game’ – try and convince me of that and I can tell you right now that you’re really wasting your time. I don’t want to be convinced of it and therefore, I won’t be convinced no matter what anyone says and how passionately they might say it.

Why exactly does there need to be a reason for studying, or a point to, maths? Would it be sensible to ask someone who plays tennis what the point of tennis is? Would it be sensible to ask a musician what the point in playing the piano is? How about a Formula 1 driver? A chef? Not really.

Why would anyone choose to play football? Well I suppose if they play Premiership football then the money might have something to do with it but primarily, I would imagine, because they enjoy it I imagine. It doesn’t solve any of the world’s problems as far as I can see, though.

Why would anyone choose to play the piano? Maybe simply because they enjoy it. Music and the piano don’t really solve any major problems facing humanity even when Bob Geldof and Bono get involved.

Why would anyone choose to learn about mathematics? Because they enjoy it? It doesn’t necessarily solve any ….oh wait actually it does solve some big problems facing humanity.

Isn’t it strange that the thing that clearly has applications and benefits that surround us every second of the day is the thing that is constantly challenged about its point. The things that really don’t make that much difference in the big picture are never even questioned.

I don’t do mathematics because it necessarily changes anything; I do it because I enjoy learning about it and for the sheer pleasure of doing it. The applications that there are of mathematics are not my primary reason for doing it; I’m pleased that there are applications and I sometimes take an interest in them but I wouldn’t know half of what I know about the subject if I was motivated only by it’s actual applications in real life.

No-one says that you have to be interested in mathematics. But nevertheless, some people are. But If you really hate something so much, whether maths or anything else for that matter, then don’t learn about it, don’t do it…simple. You don’t have to know about numbers and mathematics in life any more than you need to know about football or how to speak Latin or how to recognise an original Picasso. But for a few exceptional cases, you would probably find life much more difficult if you were completely innumerate than if you didn’t know a single rule of the game of football or a single Latin word or who Picasso was.

There are parts of mathematics that have applications in real life situations and you don’t have to look very far at all for them – in fact you’re probably reading this on one of those applications right now. Then there are parts of maths that don’t have applications. Should we only limit ourselves to those aspects of the subject that have applications right here, right now? Non-Euclidean geometry came about as a theoretical pursuit and it wasn’t until decades later that it found an application in Einstein’s theory of relativity – one of the single most important theories in the history of science. Some of the theory may never find an application other than within mathematics to produce more mathematics – but how do we know which theory will lead to something and which to nothing?

If we are to limit ourselves to stuff that only has applications here and now then should we abandon much of history, linguistics, physics, literature, music or sport even if people love doing these things for the sake of doing them? Why should mathematics, or anything else for that matter, have a point? Why does it need a purpose other than it makes people happy to do it? Mathematics is one of the most beautiful, and in some instances one of the most pointless, of human creations. Why shouldn’t it be enjoyed?

Well that’s my rant just about over – I’m glad to get it off my chest. I hope that you don’t think that all this means that I’m not enthusiastic about maths or that I don’t want to pass on my enthusiasm to other people, though! I continue to learn about mathematics on an almost daily basis and enjoy doing so; I’m proud of the fact that I can usually answer the deep, probing questions that I’m asked by my students about maths and I get excited when I get asked something that I don’t know the answer to because it means I have more to learn. Mathematics is one of the most important parts of my life; I just don’t feel that its existence needs justification or that it has to have a point. I’ll continue to show people the beauty of mathematics and either they will be convinced by its beauty or they won’t. But no hard feelings, though, if not.

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