Making sense of mathematics

When asked about what inspired him to study calculus, Steven Strogatz shared an anecdote about failing to solve an equation as a teenager. “Mathematics became something special in high school,” he said. “It became an obsession for me.” When he finally cracked it, his love of equations, figures and theories was confirmed.

In his new book, Infinite Powers, the Cornell University professor explains why numbers matter in the world, by contextualising calculus in the everyday, tangible objects that shape our lives. “It’s a system of reasoning,” he said, “that mirrors how the universe works.”

He touched upon the modern education system and its relation to numbers. "What we're doing now is producing many people with traumatic experiences of mathematics," he said. "It's better, I think, to have a liberal, broad education." He believes allowing people to understand why it's important is essential if they're going to develop a real interest in how it works. 

Delving into the zeitgeist, he used graphics in Disney films and footage of Usain Bolt winning the 100m race in the Olympics to demonstrate how the study of calculus interacts with modern life.

For Strogatz, mathematics is about being able to break down big problems into manageable chunks in order to make sense of them again. “We’re trying to make very complicated problems as simple as possible,” he said.

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