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What is math?

It might seem obvious: We hope we know what we're teaching -- and that our
students know what they're learning! But responses to that question can be surprisingly diverse.

Before you read on, please take a few minutes to reflect and record your own thoughts on "What
is math?"

I'm a math educator -- I teach grade 4 math, I've created

a math Web site, and I write about topics in math
education. Yet I cannot easily express what math is. I'm
in good company. Bertrand Russell has quipped,
"Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we
never know what we are talking about, nor whether what
we are saying is true." Math teacher Sanderson M. Smith
observes that "students can gain a tremendous
appreciation for mathematics if they understand that the
question 'What is mathematics?' has been analyzed and
debated since the time of the Pythagoreans, around 550
B.C. "

It is worth pursuing a clear understanding of the meaning

and scope of mathematics so that we might provide our
students with a richer learning experience and help them
more fully appreciate the beauty and power of

STUDENTS AND TEACHERS REFLECT ON Illustration courtesy of Wendy Petti.


In my math classes, no matter how much attention we pay to the five content standards and five
process standards, many of my students seem to focus on number and operation when they share
their thoughts and feelings about math. One of my students had an "aha!" moment the morning
after a student-led math night: "I look at math a different way now. I've usually thought of math
as something we need to do, to know how much money we need to pay, things like that. But this
morning I woke up and said, 'Wow! Math is everywhere!'"

A 2005 Math Cats writing contest on "What is math?" produced these reflections:

 From an elementary school volunteer: "Math is more than a subject we learn in school. Math
is every breath we take and every second of the day. From the moment we wake up in the
morning, math is the core of everything we do..."
 From a first-grade teacher:
"Math is you.
Math is me.
Math is everything we see!
Infinity and beyond our wildest dreams
Math encompasses all extremes!"
 From a 13-year-old: "Math is the entire world simplified on a piece of paper... Math is
ingeniousness morphed into a tiny simple formula so we can harness its fantastic powers."
 From a 12-year-old: "Math is the universal language of the world."
 From an 11-year-old: "No one can live without math; it means different things to different
people. But to me it means love, liberty, learning. I could keep going but to sum it up, math is
my life."


The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines mathematics as "the science of numbers and their
operations, interrelations, combinations, generalizations, and abstractions and of space
configurations and their structure, measurement, transformations, and generalizations."

Professor Robert H. Lewis writes: "Mathematics is not about answers, it's about processes." He
observes that, far too often, the way in which students learn math is equivalent to building a
scaffold without ever constructing the building that the scaffolding is intended to support. "The
real 'building' in the mathematics sense is the true mathematical understanding, the true ability to
think, perceive, and analyze mathematically."

Professor Dave Moursund suggests that mathematics can be divided into three overlapping

 "mathematics as a human endeavor" -- the human development and use of mathematics in

measurement, dance, music, and so on.
 "mathematics as an academic discipline" to be studied
 "mathematics as an interdisciplinary language and a tool"
He notes that most school mathematics focuses on the third category, but that we need to
embrace all three. "Relatively few K-12 teachers study enough mathematics so that they
understand and appreciate the breadth, depth, complexity, and beauty of the discipline."

Ask Dr. Math at the Math Forum has answered the question What is math? in various thought-
provoking ways over the years. Here are a few snippets.

 "Stripped to its barest essence, mathematics is the derivation of theorems from axioms. ...
Mathematics is a collection of extended, collaborative games of 'what if', played by
mathematicians who make up sets of rules (axioms) and then explore the consequences
(theorems) of following those rules."
 "To me, mathematics is a discipline that seeks understanding of the patterns and structures of
constructs of the human mind. Understanding has no end to its depth, and mathematics seeks
the highest standards of understanding by demanding rigor in its foundations and in its
 "If you asked a dozen mathematicians... what math is, you would probably get a dozen
answers...My own favorite definition is that math is the study of abstractions. That is, we
isolate one or a few features of some kind of object for study, and see what we can learn
about the behavior of those features while ignoring everything else about them: features like
number, shape, or direction."
 "I would say math is both an art (a system of skills used to do calculations, devise proofs, and
so on) and a science (a system of knowledge about numbers, shapes, and other abstract
entities, and a way of gaining that knowledge). That is, it's both a way of doing (an art) and a
way of learning (a science)."

In Mathematics: The Science of Pattern, Keith Devlin describes Egyptian and Babylonian
mathematics up to 500 B.C. as "the study of number," and the era of Greek mathematics from
500 B.C. to 300 A.D. as "the study of number and shape." In the mid-1600's, with the invention
of calculus by Newton and Leibniz, mathematics became "the study of number, shape, motion,
change, and space." As interest grew in mathematics itself, "by the end of the nineteenth century,
mathematics had become the study of number, shape, motion, change, and space, and of the
mathematical tools that are used in this study." In the past century, mathematical activity and
knowledge has increased more than a thousand fold. Devlin describes mathematics as the
"science of patterns... patterns of counting, patterns of reasoning and communicating, patterns of
motion and change, patterns of shape, patterns of symmetry and regularity, and patterns of

What does mathematics mean to you and your students? How do they respond to the experts'
characterizations of mathematics? The discussion is sure to give you new insights into your
students' thinking and to give them new insights into the meaning of mathematics.


Mathematics: The Most Misunderstood Subject, by Robert H. Lewis, July 2000.

What Is Mathematics?, by Dave Moursand

What Is Mathematics?, by Sanderson M. Smith

What Is Math? from The Math Forum - Ask Dr. Math:

What is math? Math Cats' writing contest winners

Mathematics: The Science of Patterns: The Search for Order in Life, Mind, and the Universe, by
Keith Devlin, Scientific American Library, 1997.

The Math Process Standards Series, edited by Susan O'Connell. Heinemann, 2007-2008.
In each grade band, five books promote mathematical thinking through a focus on one of the five
process standards (problem-solving, communication, reasoning and proof, representation, and
connections); each book comes with a CD of editable resource materials.
Mathematics is the science that deals with the logic of shape, quantity and arrangement. Math is
all around us, in everything we do. It is the building block for everything in our daily lives,
including mobile devices, architecture (ancient and modern), art, money, engineering, and even

Since the beginning of recorded history, mathematic discovery has been at the forefront of every
civilized society, and in use in even the most primitive of cultures. The needs of math arose
based on the wants of society. The more complex a society, the more complex the mathematical
needs. Primitive tribes needed little more than the ability to count, but also relied on math to
calculate the position of the sun and the physics of hunting

Several civilizations — in China, India, Egypt, Central America and Mesopotamia —

contributed to mathematics as we know it today. The Sumerians were the first people to develop
a counting system. Mathematicians developed arithmetic, which includes basic operations,
multiplication, fractions and square roots. The Sumerians’ system passed through the Akkadian
Empire to the Babylonians around 300 B.C. Six hundred years later, in America, the Mayans
developed elaborate calendar systems and were skilled astronomers. About this time, the concept
of zero was developed.

As civilizations developed, mathematicians began to work with geometry, which computes areas
and volumes to make angular measurements and has many practical applications. Geometry is
used in everything from home construction to fashion and interior design.

Geometry went hand in hand with algebra, invented in the ninth century by a Persian
mathematician, Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khowarizmi. He also developed quick methods for
multiplying and diving numbers, which are known as algorithms — a corruption of his name.

Algebra offered civilizations a way to divide inheritances and allocate resources. The study of
algebra meant mathematicians were solving linear equations and systems, as well as quadratics,
and delving into positive and negative solutions. Mathematicians in ancient times also began to
look at number theory. With origins in the construction of shape, number theory looks at figurate
numbers, the characterization of numbers, and theorems.

Math and the Greeks

The study of math within early civilizations was the building blocks for the math of the Greeks,
who developed the model of abstract mathematics through geometry. Greece, with its incredible
architecture and complex system of government, was the model of mathematic achievement until
modern times. Greek mathematicians were divided into several schools:

 The Ionian School, founded by Thales, who is often credited for having given the first
deductive proofs and developing five basic theorems in plane geometry.
 The Pythagorean School, founded by Pythagoras, who studied proportion, plane and solid
geometry, and number theory.
 The Eleatic School, which included Zeno of Elea, famous for his four paradoxes.
 The Sophist School, which is credited for offering higher education in the advanced Greek
cities. Sophists provided instruction on public debate using abstract reasoning.
 The Platonic School, founded by Plato, who encouraged research in mathematics in a
setting much like a modern university.
 The School of Eudoxus, founded by Eudoxus, who developed the theory of proportion and
magnitude and produced many theorems in plane geometry
 The School of Aristotle, also known as the Lyceum, was founded by Aristotle and followed
the Platonic school.
In addition to the Greek mathematicians listed above, a number of Greeks made an indelible
mark on the history of mathematics. Archimedes, Apollonius, Diophantus, Pappus, and Euclid
all came from this era. To better understand the sequence and how these mathematicians
influenced each other, visit this timeline.

During this time, mathematicians began working with trigonometry. Computational in nature,
trigonometry requires the measurement of angles and the computation of trigonometric
functions, which include sine, cosine, tangent, and their reciprocals. Trigonometry relies on the
synthetic geometry developed by Greek mathematicians like Euclid. For example, Ptolemy's
theorem gives rules for the chords of the sum and difference of angles, which correspond to the
sum and difference formulas for sines and cosines. In past cultures, trigonometry was applied to
astronomy and the computation of angles in the celestial sphere.

After the fall of Rome, the development of mathematics was taken on by the Arabs, then the
Europeans. Fibonacci was one of the first European mathematicians, and was famous for his
theories on arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. The Renaissance led to advances that included
decimal fractions, logarithms, and projective geometry. Number theory was greatly expanded
upon, and theories like probability and analytic geometry ushered in a new age of mathematics,
with calculus at the forefront.
Development of calculus
In the 17th century, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz independently developed the
foundations for calculus. Calculus development went through three periods: anticipation,
development and rigorization. In the anticipation stage, mathematicians were attempting to use
techniques that involved infinite processes to find areas under curves or maximize certain
qualities. In the development stage, Newton and Leibniz brought these techniques together
through the derivative and integral. Though their methods were not always logically sound,
mathematicians in the 18th century took on the rigorization stage, and were able to justify them
and create the final stage of calculus. Today, we define the derivative and integral in terms of

In contrast to calculus, which is a type of continuous mathematics, other mathematicians have

taken a more theoretical approach. Discrete mathematics is the branch of math that deals with
objects that can assume only distinct, separated value. Discrete objects can be characterized by
integers, whereas continuous objects require real numbers. Discrete mathematics is the
mathematical language of computer science, as it includes the study of algorithms. Fields of
discrete mathematics include combinatorics, graph theory, and the theory of computation.

People often wonder what relevance mathematicians serve today. In a modern world, math such
as applied mathematics is not only relevant, it's crucial. Applied mathematics is the branches of
mathematics that are involved in the study of the physical, biological, or sociological world. The
idea of applied math is to create a group of methods that solve problems in science. Modern
areas of applied math include mathematical physics, mathematical biology, control theory,
aerospace engineering, and math finance. Not only does applied math solve problems, but it also
discovers new problems or develops new engineering disciplines. Applied mathematicians
require expertise in many areas of math and science, physical intuition, common sense, and
collaboration. The common approach in applied math is to build a mathematical model of a
phenomenon, solve the model, and develop recommendations for performance improvement.

While not necessarily an opposite to applied mathematics, pure mathematics is driven by abstract
problems, rather than real world problems. Much of what's pursued by pure mathematicians can
have their roots in concrete physical problems, but a deeper understanding of these phenomena
brings about problems and technicalities. These abstract problems and technicalities are what
pure mathematics attempts to solve, and these attempts have led to major discoveries for
mankind, including the Universal Turing Machine, theorized by Alan Turing in 1937. The
Universal Turing Machine, which began as an abstract idea, later laid the groundwork for the
development of the modern computer. Pure mathematics is abstract and based in theory, and is
thus not constrained by the limitations of the physical world.

According to one pure mathematician, pure mathematicians prove theorems, and applied
mathematicians construct theories. Pure and applied are not mutually exclusive, but they are
rooted in different areas of math and problem solving. Though the complex math involved in
pure and applied mathematics is beyond the understanding of most average Americans, the
solutions developed from the processes have affected and improved the lives of all.