21 July 2011

A mathematical chauvinist?

An afternoon discussion at work among some of our interns revolved around a question that one (A) posed to another (B): "How many molecules of Abraham Lincoln are in a glass of water?"  After sufficient simplifying assumptions, B (a mathematician) was able to solve the problem with a simple computation.  The process resulted in a debate between A and B over the virtues of being able to derive formulae and constants, rather than looking them up with a search engine.  I sided with B, of course! as having and exercising the ability to carry out that process is much more useful than demanding that a search engine do all the work.  Simple units and order-of-magnitude calculations are things my PhD advisor does very rapidly, and when I was his student, I always found myself lagging behind and feeling not so intelligent.  Exercising that skill at least saved me a little embarrassment!

Later that evening, A was explaining to me how one writes applications for a cell phone.  I found myself feeling perfectly happy that I didn't have to do all that work.  Cell phones are things I want to use to make phone calls, and maybe look up directions in an emergency; I struggled to consider why I would want to write my own app.  However, then I realized I was doing the same thing that A had done above: not valuing the process over the answer.  Learning something about writing a cell phone application might serve me well at some future time, even though I can't imagine the value of this time investment now.  I suppose I was being a mathematical chauvinist!

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