What’s more difficult: maths or the humanities?

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As a mathematician, I have dreams about Pi Day: strangers would offer me flowers, give up their seats on the subway and even let me cut in line during rush hour. After all, the power of mathematics is extraordinary, allowing us to land a rover on Mars, build a computer to outthink chess masters and use a phone to navigate anywhere in the world.

My dreams are not too far from today’s reality. When strangers discover my profession, it is often followed by the phrase “You must be smart”.

This is startling considering they know nothing of my talents or achievements — or lack thereof — bestowing admiration based solely on maths. While a part of me rejoices in hearing their words, would I have received a similar reaction had I been a historian, a writer, an artist? Not likely.

The reason is an unspoken spectrum of smart in society today, a quick way to size up someone based on their choice of career or college major: art < literature < history < economics < biology < maths.

As one moves to the right on this spectrum, ideas become purer, cleaner and more measurable. The narrative casts mathematics and the sciences as stewards of difficult ideas, with the humanities and arts relegated to the simpler struggles. We assume that exploring black holes, protein folding and artificial intelligence is more baffling and opaque than analysing history, writing poetry or shaping sculpture.

This assumption is not only flawed but also completely backward, for there is a missing part to this story: the hidden dimension of complexity.

Although measurability increases towards the right of the spectrum, complexity increases towards the left. By their very nature, questions in science and maths become less messy, yielding more accurate solutions, whereas ideas in the humanities are more complicated, resulting in less precision.

To see why, let’s talk about seafood: a mathematician is given a fish, gutted and scaled. Asked to count the number of its bones, she does so admirably, proclaiming there are 84. The audience is wowed. Such precision. She is asked to do this again, to confirm her calculations. She again gets 84 bones. Such accuracy. Such consistency.

The biologist is asked the same question, but now the fish is moving and full of life. Because of the increase in difficulty, the biological calculation will not be as accurate or consistent as the mathematical one. The historian is requested to discover where the fish was swimming a month ago. And the artist is tasked with capturing what the fish might have imagined and perceived in its ecosystem. Complexity is inversely related to measurability.

Scientific marvels surround us: splitting atoms, peering into black holes and manipulating genomes. Yet the 21st century continues to grapple with the basic themes and issues encountered in the humanities over the centuries: gender and race, beauty and acceptance, truth and power. Stories of Black Lives Matter, #TimesUp and fake news still take the front page. This should not surprise us. These problems are not rocket science; they are far more difficult than rocket science. Putting a man on the moon is the easy stuff.

Written texts offer clues as well. Profound notions in mathematics and quantum mechanics — dealing with algebraic varieties and space-time curvatures in relativity — are captured by elegant equations and tight notations, wonderfully packaged in a handful of pages.

Compare this with, say, sociological scholarship. The eminent philosopher Charles Taylor, in his groundbreaking work A Secular Age, invests nearly 100 pages of his 800-page tome just to define and tease out the word “secular”. The situation becomes more precarious as we move towards the arts, which cannot be summarised by codes and symbolism.

Nor are there artworks of nine-year-olds on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art. Unlike the cleanliness of mathematics and computer science, with its set of axioms and algorithms, a young mind cannot master the intricate natures of philosophy and literature and art. We fail to recognise that science is about the simple “could”, not the complex “should”.

Stem programmes — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — are doing a wonderful job helping us to think about the world substantively (facts matter), clearly (respect logical coherence) and critically (interrogate individual biases).

The arts and humanities also embrace these outcomes, but they offer a different set of values needed for probing complex frameworks: appreciating close readings of texts, unpacking the subtlety of rhetoric, embracing multiple ways of knowing and valuing experiences acquired through arduous history.

The world would be a better place if we can open our young minds to the rigours of disciplines beyond Stem.

Satyan Linus Devadoss is a fellow of the American Mathematical Society and a professor of applied mathematics and computer science at the University of San Diego

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Published Mar 19, 2018 at 8:00 am (Updated Mar 19, 2018 at 8:09 am)

What’s more difficult: maths or the humanities?

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