What's in a definition?

I just managed to stumble upon this in my email – an article I had written 4 years ago. Sounded interesting and relevant so thought of posting it here.

Somebody asked me, “What is Mathematics?” And queer enough but true that I did not have a prompt readymade definiton framed in a few words for mathematics as you have for the other subjects. Being in the ‘elite’ company of mathematics for nearly five years now I still do not have a concrete idea as to how mathematics can be actually defined. I say ‘elite’ because people tend to look at mathematicians as esoteric and absent-minded geeks totally lost in their world full of theorems and their proofs. Either they carry an image of a mathematician as Prof. Calculus of the Tintin comics or mistakenly believe that calculating prodigies like Shakuntala Devi are mathematicians. Okay so let me try to define it here.

Greatest mathematician Carl Freidrich Gauss once said, “Mathematics is the queen of all sciences.” True to every word indeed. Well mathematics is the science behind every imagination, the spark for every thought and the logic behind everything bizzare. But does it sufffice to call it a science? The morning tea you make, the yoga postures, the bus to work you take, the phone calls you attend, gardening in the evening or switching off the lights before going to bed all use mathematics in some form or the other.

Mathematics these days has its presence in a wide range of human activities. Theory of chance and probability are extensively used in predicting which team will win a cricket match or what will be Anand’s next move in chess! Optimization theory has found wide applications in industrial production and marketting scene. Advanced mathematics is used in fields as wide as astrophysics. Invention of calculus aided the study of motion of planets or the well-known theories of Relativity or Gravitation have their base on mathematics. From stock trading to running an economy mathematics is everywhere. Be it natural sciences or earth sciences or social sciences or no science at all mathematics can be traced. Theory of warfare has got excessive importance these days and is a product of mathematics. From counting of election votes to calculating dates of historical monuments or fossils or predicting the next Tsunami, mathematics reigns. Can I actually stop somewhere. No. The list goes endless. Very correct is a saying in Sanskrit whose English translation goes like,

“Like the crest of the peacock and the jewel of the serpent,
Mathematics stands at the head of all sciences.”

But wait the examples I cited surely must have made you accept that mathematics is not just a science but an art too. From music notes to drum beats mathematical theory finds a role. We say that giving examples does not mean definition in mathematics though. So I still have not got an answer to that somebody’s question.

So let me try again, “Mathematics is a science…or rather its an art…or a vocation…(still confused)…….ladies and gentlemen so this mathematics and it can confuse anybody anytime and hence keeps you engaged all the time.

Dated – 5th Sept 2005

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4 thoughts on “What's in a definition?

  1. Mathematics is more like a game with rules.The good part is when their are good rules, it defines a precise natural phenomena, when imprecise, leads to “chaos”. It is indeed a nice post. BTw have you read Glass bead game by Hesse!

  2. Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe. Be it the arrangement of leaves on plants, the gravitational pull of the planets, the fibonacci sequence, the mystery number phi.. anything actually.

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