An Answer To The Question Every Teenager Eventually Asks

This week, a brilliant, well-meaning person in my Facebook feed was discussing the idea of an iPhone app which would highlight viruses (the ‘flu’ or ‘corona’ kind, not the computer kind) if present on a surface. My ‘this is a load of bovine excrement’ alarm went off pretty quickly, so I responded by trying to appeal to the fact that electron microscopes cost as much as an entry-level BMW, weigh hundreds of pounds, and the batteries to power them would weigh thousands, all of that ignoring the incredible amount of computing power required to identify and highlight viruses on a screen in real-time. Naturally, the answer received in response was something to the effect of “well, technology keeps getting better and smaller!”, which is only partially true – the power adapter for my laptop weighs four pounds because there comes a point at which ‘physics’ starts knocking at the door.

The person private-messaged me and attempted to be a bit more convincing. I ended up deciding to do the math. Now, I might not have gotten it correct because ‘powers-of-ten’ has always managed to have me off by a very-important digit or two, but the math I came up with basically said that my 4×2 folding table could fit nearly 8 billion flu viruses on its surface without stacking. The reality I was trying to point out is that everything we touch is covered in microscopic bugs in one form or another, so making an app that would point them out individually would be pointless, because even after bleach or Lysol (but hopefully not both), surfaces would still be too heavily covered for such an app to be useful.

I wasn’t the best math student, and I never, ever enjoyed it. Once I get past, maybe 9th grade math, my understanding asymptotically plummets (though admittedly, I happen to remember what an asymptote is), and if I were to dust off my high school and/or college transcripts, they’d show someone who wasn’t exactly a star pupil of the discipline. Though writing this blog entry makes me want to try taking a 9th or 10th grade final exam found somewhere on the internet just to see how much I actually remember, the high level concepts of algebra, logic, and statistics have served well as building blocks for a bulls**t detector.

When economists seem to project year-over-year growth forever, the math says that there will be a saturation point at which a company will be unable to expand further. This is how we explain why video game maker Bethesda thought selling a $100/year in-game premium subscription to a game that cost $60 off the shelf was a good idea. When politicians talk about massive spending bills, the sticker shock of ‘billions of dollars’ is commonly a scare tactic – those numbers are commonly tied to a multi-year timespan and a population of hundreds of millions of people. I’m certainly not advocating for infinite spending, but I am saying that math helps us turn that “$500 billion” number into “about $156, per person, per year”, which is about the cost of a large coffee at 7-11 twice a week. When friends try to pitch me on the latest multi-level marketing trend, they always tell me about the fantastic opportunities at the top of the mountain. I always ask three questions: What’s the median individual revenue, what’s the average of the first standard deviation, and what’s the percentage of people who make it to this top tier? …I’ve yet to get an answer, but I promise you it’s the fastest way to making sure you don’t get asked about the next one. ” The ‘if-then’ statements used to demonstrate logic proofs help teach inference and deductive reasoning, allowing broader pictures of human behavior to be ascertained with incomplete information. A good number of statements from an untruthful person paired with logic proofs like the fun Latin-derived ‘modus tollens‘ can help catch a liar in his or her tracks. A simple stand I recently made from plywood required a ruler and some trigonometry so I knew how to cut the legs out of a single piece of wood and ensure they were even. Simple multiplication was drilled into me in third grade, and being able to halve and double very quickly is incredibly useful when I’m DJing and have to get my phrases right so I don’t end up with weird segues that are too short or too long.

The fact is, math is frequently distilled down into drills and repetition, sterile in its presentation in some cases, and comically absurd in others. To be fair, the fact that I learned asymptotes in high school but checkbook balancing in college as a byproduct of an accounting class isn’t a testament to properly prioritized curricula. It’s not like there has been a massive push to implement things like tangential learning into math class. This leaves us to be exposed to math for its own sake, and the fact of the matter is that most middle school and high school students (or college students or adults, really) will respond well to that sort of execution. I really can’t fault most students, former or current, for pushing back against learning something with such an unforgiving right-or-wrong grading system at the same time that “getting a good grade” is the only objective ever presented for doing so.

So, when will you use math, you ask? “When you need to figure out if someone is trying to sell you on a load of bulls**t.” THAT is how that question needs to start being answered.