Chapter 2: THE NATURE OF MATHEMATICS
Mathematics relies on both logic and creativity, and it is pursued both for a variety of practical purposes and for its intrinsic interest. For some people, and not only professional mathematicians, the essence of mathematics lies in its beauty and its intellectual challenge. For others, including many scientists and engineers, the chief value of mathematics is how it applies to their own work. Because mathematics plays such a central role in modern culture, some basic understanding of the nature of mathematics is requisite for scientific literacy. To achieve this, students need to perceive mathematics as part of the scientific endeavor, comprehend the nature of mathematical thinking, and become familiar with key mathematical ideas and skills. This chapter focuses on mathematics as part of the scientific endeavor and then on mathematics as a process, or way of thinking. Recommendations related to mathematical ideas are presented in Chapter 9, The Mathematical World, and those on mathematical skills are included in Chapter 12, Habits of Mind.
PATTERNS AND RELATIONSHIPS
Mathematics is the science of patterns and relationships. As a theoretical discipline, mathematics explores the possible relationships among abstractions without concern for whether those abstractions have counterparts in the real world. The abstractions can be anything from strings of numbers to geometric figures to sets of equations. In addressing, say, "Does the interval between prime numbers form a pattern?" as a theoretical question, mathematicians are interested only in finding a pattern or proving that there is none, but not in what use such knowledge might have. In deriving, for instance, an expression for the change in the surface area of any regular solid as its volume approaches zero, mathematicians have no interest in any correspondence between geometric solids and physical objects in the real world. A central line of investigation in theoretical mathematics is identifying in each field of study a small set of basic ideas and rules from which all other interesting ideas and rules in that field can be logically deduced. Mathematicians, like other scientists, are particularly pleased when previously unrelated parts of mathematics are found to be derivable from one another, or from some more general theory. Part of the sense of beauty that many people have perceived in mathematics lies not in finding the greatest elaborateness or complexity but on the contrary, in finding the greatest economy and simplicity of representation and proof. As mathematics has progressed, more and more relationships have been found between parts of it that have been developed separately—for example, between the symbolic representations of algebra and the spatial representations of geometry. These cross-connections enable insights to be developed into the various parts; together, they strengthen belief in the correctness and underlying unity of the whole structure. Mathematics is also an applied science. Many mathematicians focus their attention on solving problems that originate in the world of experience. They too search for patterns and relationships, and in the process they use techniques that are similar to those used in doing purely theoretical mathematics. The difference is largely one of intent. In contrast to theoretical mathematicians, applied mathematicians, in the examples given above, might study the interval pattern of prime numbers to develop a new system for coding numerical information, rather than as an abstract problem. Or they might tackle the area/volume problem as a step in producing a model for the study of crystal behavior. The results of theoretical and applied mathematics often influence each other. The discoveries of theoretical mathematicians frequently turn out—sometimes decades later—to have unanticipated practical value. Studies on the mathematical properties of random events, for example, led to...
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