Why Not to Fear Math in Your Future


In this new TEDMED talk, biologist E.O. Wilson voices some very wise yet seldom heard opinions. Though aimed at young scientists, his advice should also be heeded by those students who are making important decisions about their higher education.

From my recent work as a private tutor, it has become clear that many very good students are hesitant to pursue careers in science because they fear mathematics. Having looked ahead, they know that earning a degree in science would require passing at least some university mathematics courses. What has surprised me is that being able to pass those courses is not necessarily their main concern. Rather, they interpret the presence of the requirement to mean that, working in science, they would have to spend most of their days sitting around solving math problems.

Obviously, some scientists really do work that way and they do love it. For the most part though, that’s simply not what a career in science is like. Wilson emphasizes that most research projects are conducted by teams of people working together and that not everyone on every such team has to be, or even can be, equally fluent in advanced mathematics. For most members of such a team, it is sufficient to be able to converse intelligently with their colleagues and to know when to seek more mathematically sophisticated collaborators. Just yesterday I had lunch with a friend who told me about a recent incident when some colleagues were trying to solve a simple problem and suddenly realized that more than 20 years had slipped by since the last time any of them had done any calculus.

I encourage my students to watch the video and to pay special attention to Wilson’s second principle.

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2 Responses to Why Not to Fear Math in Your Future

  1. Norma Woodcock says:

    I really like this blog. I am one of these people who gave up a higher education in science because of my insecurity about my ability to do math. My first love was botany. But when organic chemistry and some math courses were dangled in front of my eighteen year old nose…..I went into Education. I settled. I did not enjoy education although it allowed me to spend time with children, who I have always enjoyed, and helped me find a career in psychology with children. I enjoyed my work doing therapy with children……but spent all my left over moments in the garden or on hikes spending time with my first love. Maybe, if I had found a tutor who had understood my needs around math alittle more clearly and had showed some kindness and encouragement…..who knows…Norma

  2. Glenna says:

    Good posting, Brian.

    Science is endlessly fascinating, and math is simply a tool to help understand it. If you like science, but don’t love math, Brian and E.O. Wilson (in the video) are right – you don’t necessarily need to use math every day. Many biologists, for example, don’t need to use much more than simple statistics, and they certainly don’t use it every day.

    Never let math be the reason you give up on science. With wonderful tutors like Brian, you can understand math, you can get through any math courses required for a degree, and do well, and eventually, you can proudly hang science diplomas on your wall, and look for work in your chosen field.

    I am a woman who studied biophysics, and I loved it.

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