Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Scientists don't need math?

The Wall Street Journal recently published an essay called: "Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math". The essay is by a scientist by the name of E. O. Wilson. This gent is considered the world's expert on myrmecology. I am sure most of my readers already know what this is, but just in case there are a few people who stumbled on this blog who aren't aware of the field... myrmecology is the study of ants. Dr. Wilson is an important enough guy that someone has taken the time to make a Wiki entry on him [1].
I am not a myrmecologist, but I play one in old SciFi B movies

Dr. Wilson had some controversial things to say about the amount of math needed for scientists: "Many of the most successful scientists in the world today are mathematically no more than semiliterate." Wow. Them's fighting words. Especially after my last blog post where I bemoaned the innumeracy of the USA.

I took a few of my scientist buddies out for a beer and asked them what they thought about whether math is important for a scientist. Here is what they had to say:
Whoever despises the high wisdom of mathematics nourishes himself on delusion.
Da Vinci

The Universe is a grand book which cannot be read until one first learns to comprehend the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics.

What science can there be more noble, more excellent, more useful for men, more admirably high and demonstrative than mathematics.
Benjamin Franklin

Every new body of discovery is mathematical in form, because there is no other guidance we can have.
Charles Darwin

When you can measure what you are talking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it.
Lord Kelvin

But there is another reason for the high repute of mathematics: it is mathematics that offers the exact natural sciences a certain measure of security which, without mathematics, they could not attain.
Albert Einstein

A first fact should surprise us, or rather would surprise us if we were not used to it. How does it happen there are people who do not understand mathematics? If mathematics invokes only the rules of logic, such as are accepted by all normal minds ... how does it come about that so many persons are here refractory?

Henri Poincare

What? Math? Oh yeah. Ummm... I think it's important to scientists. You don't think they can afford to pay accountants to do their taxes, do you?
John the Math Guy 

So... sorry, Dr. Wilson. My buddies don't agree with you.

[1] Just in case you're wondering, I have not yet taken the time to write my auto-Wiki-ography. I'll get around to it some day. Certainly before anyone else will add me to Wikipedia!!!


  1. Imagine building or flying a plane, baking a cake or making a nuclear weapon without mathematics. There are probably a thousand more examples but without math I couldn't quantify them.

  2. is important to point out that the mathematical formulation of the physicist's often crude experience leads in an uncanny number of cases to an amazingly accurate description of a large class of phenomena. This shows that the mathematical language has more to commend it than being the only language which we can speak; it shows that it is, in a very real sense, the correct language.
    Eugene Wigner "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences"

    "The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry."
    --BERTRAND RUSSELL, Study of Mathematics

    Goodmornign from Greece

  3. On the other hand, how many of the great wonders of the world were create without complex or even complicated math? Towers, ships pyramids, ... In the architectural literature from time of the pharaohs, the circumference of a column is said to be three times its diameter, by the people who did not actually build any columns. One pauses to ponder if Da Vince calculated direction cosines for every brush stroke when painted perspective using lighting.

    Mathematics is very useful for answering the physicists' question, "why is this so?". Galileo was able to demonstrate his observation that the velocity of a falling object is proportional to its mass without the aid of Newton's differential equations of motion.

    So I tend to agree with E.O.Wilson, especially in the case of observational scientists, like myrmecologist.