Humans, Math, and Science
Whether you realize it or not, you use math all the time—and well. If you live in a
reasonably large city and you want to get across town by noon, would you leave your
home at 11:59 A.M., 11 A.M., or 6 A.M.? You use math to figure that out. If you want
to buy a medium-priced house, should you plan to spend $100, $100,000 or
$100,000,000? Again, math shows itself. Of course, you probably won't compute
beforehand that you need to leave at precisely 11:06 A.M. to arrive precisely at noon,
or that you'll spend exactly $123,692 for your house. Rather, you find an answer that
“feels right” or “makes sense.” That’s the whole point of mathematical reasoning.
Let’s look at another example. When a baseball star is at the plate, he observes the
incoming pitch, predicts its trajectory and location of arrival, optimizes the ideal bat
location, generates energy and work to swing the bat, and finally imparts the
maximum force on the ball, all to make the ball travel as far and high as possible. It’s
all physics, revealed through math! Every day, our lives are infused with math and
science. The only trick is translating the natural language of our everyday existence
into the numbers and shorthand that others expect to see. This process is exactly what
science is all about—whether it’s to explain a batter hitting a ball, or a planet orbiting
a star, or an atom emitting a photon.
The Language of the Universe
Albert Einstein truly understood the utility of math and science, perhaps more deeply
than anyone else who ever lived. “How can it be,” he once wrote, “that mathematics,
being after all a product of human thought independent of experience, is so admirably
adapted to the objects of reality?” He answered his own question with a quote, also
attributed to Galileo Galilei: “Mathematics is the language with which God has
written the universe.”
Hmm, that makes science the poetry of the universe! It’s an entertaining metaphor to
ponder, and it reveals a deep insight. All the forces, quantities, and processes that
shape our earthly lives match the forces, quantities, and processes that shape
everything else in the universe, including the cosmos itself. The heavens and the Earth
are one; a speck of dust is the stuff of the stars; and the tiniest components of
subatomic matter may have sown the seeds of the universe. And we puny humans
have a way to grasp all this wonder: math and science.
Einstein saw that nature, in both its simple perfection and its nigh-infinite complexity,
follows a remarkably small set of rules. And the amazing variety of phenomena we
observe in the universe arises from applying those rules to particular local