I studied English until year 11, yet beyond learning to read and write at primary school, I have never needed any of this since leaving school. I have certainly not drawn the inside of a pepper since this was required of me in year 7 art class. So why do people only ever complain about how they have never needed pythagoras or solving equations in the real world? I am not saying maths is any more important than English or art by the way, just that it is equally so.

Art, music and theatre are not useful, but they are not required to be, as they are beautiful and entertaining (in the eye of the beholder at least- the stage adaptation of 1984 was two hours of my life that I will never get back!) Why then should maths, something equally beautiful in its own way, require a real-life purpose to be justifiable? Your mobile phone number and date of birth appear somewhere in the irrational number pi (see digits 96060954-96060961 for my date of birth). The numbers that you think are infinite are in fact not even scraping the surface when you consider the 2-dimensional numbers. Even without the real-life application of pi and complex numbers, these numbers in themselves are inherently beautiful and interesting. Think flowers are more beautiful than maths? Think again. That’s petals arranged in Fibonacci numbers you’re looking at there.

So this post should not exist. I should not feel the need to justify maths by its real life applications. But I will. Because some people don’t think maths is beautiful and think that I should study their idea of beauty but that they should not study mine.

Consider getting on a plane. You need basic numeracy to work out when to get the plane to get where you’re going on time, and some money skills to see if you can afford it. The internet uses prime numbers and cryptography to ensure that no one steals your credit card details while you’re booking that flight and the travel company uses probability and financial maths to work out how much to charge you for the flight based on how popular the time you are flying is and then they do some probability to work out how many on board meals they should bring with them so that they can be relatively certain they will have enough, given the proportion of passengers who generally purchase a meal. You then do some arithmetic to work out how many packets of crisps you could buy from tesco for the price of just one small tube of pringles on board. If you are a particularly irritating person, you might announce to your neighbour that the sandwich you have bought is only 20% carbs which is the rule of your new diet and they will use their own knowledge of percentages to tell you that there’s a 100% chance that they don’t care about your diet.

I have managed a whole paragraph about the maths of flying and we haven’t even taken off yet, and that’s the biggest bit. The forces required to ensure a safe take off arise from detailed calculations, taking into consideration the mass of the plane and the thrust from the engine and lo and behold you’re defying gravity at 32,000 feet and you stay at a relatively constant height because the thrust from the engine pushes air around the carefully designed wings so that the lift is approximately equal to the gravitational force exerted on the plane. Thankfully the pilot knows about bearings, so can navigate to the correct destination without crashing into any other planes along the way. Once you land, you change your money at the airport and regret not changing it before you left when you calculate the difference in exchange rates and don’t even notice how much maths and economics went into calculating those exchange rates in the first place. In fact, you didn’t notice any of the maths along the way, so after checking in on facebook at your holiday destination, you share a photo with a sarcastic caption about how funny it is that yet another day has passed where you haven’t used any algebra. Btw, thanks to cryptography no one hacked your account and changed your profile picture to a jpg of a chicken while you were on the plane.

Admittedly I am not an aviation expert, so the exact details above are my somewhat simplified understanding of events, and perhaps you think that a single plane flight is hardly justification for the hours you spent learning about fractions and algebra and the probability of rolling a prime number on a dice. But I shall leave you with the thought that world war 2 was won not by guns and bombs, but by maths. It is estimated that when Alan Turing cracking the Enigma code, it shortened the war by 2-3 years, saving between 14 and 21 million lives.

tl;dr- maths is beautiful AND useful. And it saved millions of lives in WW2.