Why is mathematics important? This seems a strange question to ask, for the importance of math has been recognized since the beginning of civilizations. Perhaps this question is still relevant today because many of today’s youths appear to decry the importance of gaining some mathematical knowledge and some school-children have even come to dislike math as an academic subject.
Since the dawn of civilization, men have found it necessary to enumerate – to count beyond 10; to quantify articles and animals ( tools, cattle, etc ) and other items essential to their livelihood. Thus were born the various numerals and their symbolic representation: Arabic, Roman, Egyptian, Chinese etc. Numeracy became an important quality that a learned man possessed in early human history. And as society became more developed and human activities more diversified and complex, mathematical knowledge became paramount to at least many important segments of society: the merchant class, the traders and artisans and eventually even men and women on the street found it necessary to be functionally numerate in order to survive and thrive. And since the emergence of human beings on Earth, individuals and societies have been intrigued by various natural and super-natural phenomena, some of which remain unexplained to this day. To help solve and explain these mysteries, men and women had discovered and developed a great body of scientific knowledge but such knowledge needed the aid of mathematics in order to become meaningful and before the particular knowledge could be utilized in practice.
Now we are nearing the second decade of the 21st century and if anyone still asks the question of why mathematics is important, I think it does not take a mathematician to answer it. In today’s world of advanced technology in almost every field of human and even non-human activities, mathematics has played its part in helping develop and design many of the state-of-the-art gadgets and tools, machines, vehicles, ships, planes, satellites, LCD TV sets, digital cameras, etc and other products which are important in industrial, commercial and environmental applications. Take a modern mobile phone for instance: no doubt the principles behind the making of the phone stem from a myriad knowledge of physics, chemistry, metallurgy, electronics etc. But the design and functions of the phone could only come into being with the help of mathematical knowledge. The internal functions of the phone, the fuzzy logic and the other common features very often depend on some sort of algorithm and mathematical logic and one cannot deny and even over-emphasize the vital role played by mathematics in the birth of the modern mobile phone. The same can be said of the role played by mathematics in the evolution of new and modern products in almost all fields, be it engineering, defence, health-care or others.
If we detour into the world of business, finance and commerce, we will realize that mathematics plays a pivotal role in the everyday running of many financial institutions. A typical home mortgage has to be negotiated between the house-buyer and the bank and a legal document needs to be drafted incorporating the terms and conditions under which the mortgage is granted, the amount of money to be repaid over a certain number of months and the interest rates applicable. All these involve some fairly simple mathematics, yes, but one must not forget that the banks and other financial institutions make use of some quite advanced mathematical techniques in arriving at those figures and numbers and these jobs are the purview of their house actuarial staff. Similarly, an insurance company, in arriving at the figures for the premium payable under a particular policy, has to seek the professional expertise of an actuary to calculate (using some complex formulae and many other relevant parameters and variables and invoking statistical theories ) the relevant amount of premium and items like surrender value, survival benefits etc.
I hope this article succeeds in informing its readers why mathematics is ( as it has always been, was in the past, and will still be in future ) important today. This does not mean that everybody must become a mathematician, nor must one equip oneself with profound mathematical knowledge in order to survive the 21st century. To my mind, however, a good grasp of practical mathematics is essential for a meaningful and gratifying life in the new world, just as it is imperative to be able to communicate at least at a person-to-person level, using a common language.