STEM Subjects – why Maths is Cool!


Maths was always my favorite subject and is at the core of STEM subjects (Science Technology, Engineering, Maths).  I was fascinated by how people used maths to solve real, practical problems.  Like the Egyptians building their pyramids, like carpenters using Pythagoras’ theorem to construct a right angle, like Marconi inventing radio – but more on that later.  In the present day it is used all around us – cryptography uses prime numbers to keep our passwords safe, social media sites use complex algorithms to figure out which video to show you next so you’ll stay glued to your screen, Spotify analyses the number of beats per minute of the music you like in order to suggest other songs you might like.

On the window of my office there is also a Mathematical formula written:  e =  -1  , which is Euler’s equation. It’s there because it’s my favourite – it’s where Mr. Euler brings a cast of super-star numbers together and then there is a big surprise ending.  The first super-star is Pi, which has a value of 3.14… and it goes on forever after the decimal point.  The second super-star is e, the exponential number which has value 2.718…. and it also goes on forever.  The third star is i, (or iota, the Greek letter for i).  It doesn’t have a decimal value as it is an imaginary number – it is the number than when multiplied by itself gives the answer -1.

Euler takes these three superstar numbers and combines them in a formula, and the answer is … wait for it…  minus one.  So, by multiplying these never-ending number and imaginary numbers, you get -1.  That is just so surprising!  And it helps calculate satellite trajectories.

Maths makes for a really cool exploring tool.  Marconi was interested in Maths and Physics, and studied the new science of electromagnetism.  While most people were trying to figure out how to generate power, Marconi was interested in the fact that the mathematical models of electromagnetic waves suggested that in theory they could be transmitted over large distances.  Marconi went on to build a transmitter and receiver that proved the mathematical models were correct – and so came the telegraph, radio, television, Wi-Fi.  It was only because the maths predicted it, that Marconi had the stubbornness to try it.

The same phenomenon happened in the past few years – back in the 1960’s a mathematical model suggested the existence of a new elementary particle, called the Higgs Boson (aka the God particle).  Because Maths showed it should exist, scientists spent the next 50 years searching for it, until in July 2012 they found it, measured in and weighed it.

Maths is also a really useful tool when embarking on a new project or business venture.  ‘Do the numbers stack up?’ is a frequent question.  When setting up Aspira back in 2007, my co-founder and I made a list of all the costs we could think of, how much money we had available, and the likelihood of generating some sales.  By putting this into a spreadsheet, it told us how long we could survive even if we made no sales (the answer was six months) and it also told us how much sales we needed to win in order to break even.  The mathematical model we built gave us the confidence to embark on the journey to set up Aspira.

Mathematicians are like explorers, on a voyage of discovery, looking off into the distance and predicting things that are far away.  But those predictions are what cause people to choose their target and set sail for new horizons.

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Author: Pat Lucey, CEO, Aspira.

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