The Enduring Uniqueness of Mathematics

Why is mathematics different (in a good way) from every other subject you learned in school?

Two words: Pythagorean Theorem.

Let me explain. The Pythagorean Theorem in itself isn’t really the reason math is unique; it is merely an example I wish to use to illustrate my point. I chose this Theorem for an example because it has been my experience that it is one of the few things everyone remembers from math class, regardless of how much they enjoyed math or how well they did in the course. But just in case the P.T. slipped your mind, here is a recap:

For any right triangle, the square of the hypotenuse (side opposite the right (90 degree) angle), is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides.

This result is attributed to the Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras (hence the creative name for the theorem). Pythagoras lived between the 5th and 6th century B.C. and while he is ultimately the one credited with proving the theorem, there is evidence that the result of the theorem was known to the Babylonians 1000 years before Pythagoras was born. Notice this old tablet:

Wow, that is old. Here you can read more about the Babylonians and the Pythagorean Theorem.

My point is that in what other class are you performing the same operations as people were performing 3000 years ago? Certainly in history class you learn about earlier civilizations, but you are not being taught how to do history in the same manner as those civilizations. The precision that modern history requires was largely unknown to those ancient people. Perhaps in literature you read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, but again, you aren’t being taught to write in the same style of epic poetry.

So then why is it that in math class, while advancements have been made and technology certainly has come a long way, we still find it beneficial to perform calculations the way they were performed thousands of years ago?

My answer: there is nothing to perfect, nothing ot improve upon, when you come across truth. Real truth.

To all of us who hold the Christian belief that God is truth, anything that is true is a fact about God, and mathematics is a branch of theology.

~Hilda Phoebe Hudson


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