Who Needs Mathematics?

The world we are living in is faced with many problems some of which are pollution, global warming, over-population, starvation, traffic congestion, crime, corruption, terrorism and war. In combating and addressing some of these problems, mathematics as the language of modern science generally, can play a big role. The applications of mathematics pervade our society: from the listening to digital music to the prediction of weather; from estimating fish populations to analyzing the spread of an epidemic, from politics to the arts, from medicine to sport, from optimizing the running of a business to minimizing the effect of an earthquake or tornado, from encryption for cyber banking to spying on a business competitor, etc. The list simply goes on, and on!

Despite this pervasive use of mathematics in almost every field of human endeavor, learners at school, still frequently ask their mathematics teacher at every level: “Who needs mathematics?” or “When will I use math?” A non-profit website that tries to help answer this question is:

This non-profit website describes the importance of mathematics and many rewarding career opportunities available to students who study mathematics. It firstly has an introductory video that shows short snippets by various professionals who use mathematics extensively. Then the website has a Blog section which has short, regular articles on interesting mathematics and its applications, people using mathematics, as well as the occasional posting of an interesting problem.

Also listed on the website are 45 different careers ranging from Actuary to Urban Planner, giving additional information on each of these professions. In the “Did You Know’ section there are subsections on “Math in Real Life’, ‘Math Titbits’, ‘New Discoveries’ and ‘Unsolved Problems’. Finally, there is a section on Math Resources for the Teacher’.

Another useful column for teachers to show their learners to illustrate the fascinatingly wide range of fields that use mathematics is the regular ‘Math in the Media’ column at the American Mathematical Society (AMS) website at: The AMS ‘Features’ (Monthly Essays on Mathematical Topics) Column for July also describe an interesting application of statistics to try and reduce the losses American bombers were suffering during World War II. Find this at:

For those learners more inclined and attracted to the Creative Arts, a visit to the AMS ‘Mathematical Imagery’ column at will be a true visual delight and inspiration. The connection between mathematics and art goes back thousands of years. Mathematics has been used in the design of Gothic cathedrals, Rose windows, oriental rugs, mosaics and tilings. Mathematicians and artists continue to create stunning works in all media and to explore the visualization of mathematics--origami, computer-generated landscapes, tesselations, fractals, anamorphic art, and more.

The Mathematical Association of America (MAA) also has a section on ‘Careers’ at that learners might find useful. The most popular careers listed there Teaching, Actuarial Science, Computer Science, Operations Research, Biomathematics, Cryptography, and Finance. Of special interest is that in 2014, CareerCast announced its annual ranking of the 10 best jobs and nine out of the top 10 jobs are in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) category with statistician ranked third and actuary ranked fourth. CareerCast ranks the 200 most populated jobs based on four factors: environment, income, outlook, and stress.

In relation to the above ranking of careers, another useful site to visit is the ‘Why Study Math?’ link of Duke University at:

The South African Mathematics Foundation (SAMF) has published a series on Careers in Mathematics; visit their page for more information.

Lastly, this site gives the following 5 reasons for studying mathematics, namely:

1. Humanity needs Maths

2. Potential for Joint courses

3. Graduate Prospects

4. Transferable skills

5. Salary advantage

Above all, I think a major reason for studying mathematics is the personal intellectual satisfaction one achieves by being challenged and learning not only to appreciate the conquests of those mathematicians and scientists of the past, but also those of the present, in constantly shaping and reshaping both the fascinating world of abstract mathematical thought as well as our natural and technological world through application.


- Michael de Villiers, Professor Extraordinaire: Mathematics Education, University of Stellenbosch.

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