Urban Dynamics Blog

Go Tell It to the Mathematicians


A friend of mine on Facebook posted this comment on her Facebook page,

Although Algebra teaches you logical reasoning and problem solving skills I may only use Algebra when I am figuring out time and distance when preparing for road trips.

It is true that “Algebra teaches you logical reasoning and problem solving skills.” However, you use algebra along with other forms of math much more than you realize. This is because you use mathematics, including algebra, intuitively. What is meant by this?

You use algebra, calculus, and trigonometry throughout the day and everyday (you even use more complicated forms of mathematics but this is a topic for another day). This is intuitive mathematics, something your brain does automatically, rather than something you explicitly think about or do on paper; for example, you use calculus when you drive. You use the derivative when thinking about your current speed and you use the integral when computing the distance to your place of work or the distance between the car in front of you or the car in back of you (the derivative and integral are the two basic tools of calculus).

You also use trigonometry when making left and right turns, or during parallel parking, or some sort of parking activity. Algebra is the means, or the tool, that helps you to solve these problems implicitly and automatically. Mathematics are simply the symbolic tools to illustrate what you do alot, intuitively, throughout the day. However, you would never know this from taking a math class, because many mathematicians are squares. Pun intended.

However, thinking mathematically is nothing new for our species. Our abilities in mathematics have been evolving for a very long time. A brief tour through history will illustrate as much.

Homo sapiens emerged as a species more than 200 hundred thousand years ago. But even before that biological emergence, the predecessors of the species were hunting for food. The earlier bipedal species like australopithecus afarensis (Lucy), australopithecus africanus, and others had to have the ability to gauge the distance between themselves, various opportunities for food, and possible predators. Hence, they used early, rudimentary forms of intuitive mathematics.

For example, the distance between Lucy and the predator is calculus. Mathematicians call this the integral. The angle to get away from the predator is trigonometry. The wrong angle would mean certain doom for Lucy. Of course, those earlier bipedal species had to compute, intuitively, the speed of different types of predators, and weigh the probabilities of success, intuitively (this is probability theory). They did not know the exact speed of predators, but there was a hunch based off of previous experiences – successes and failures – of how fast and agile each predator species was.


Later in human history, but more recently, Homo sapiens developed tools – projectiles and stone tools – to use for hunting of prey and defense against predators. Like the advancement in ancient technology, intuitive mathematics advanced. Although no representation of symbolic mathematics existed until about 7,000 years ago, mathematical instincts by humans continued to evolve through evolutionary biological means, i.e., natural selection, environmental pressures, and trial and error.

Many early humans died terrible deaths due to engineering malfunctions of projectiles and the consequential failure of intuitive mathematics. In other words, the projectile tool did not work and that predator was much closer than it appeared; or perhaps the projectile did not work and the prey got away.

Either way, the miscalculation more than likely meant certain death from a violent death or possible starvation. But today, that miscalculation could result in a car accident followed by a higher premium. It could also result in a foul ball to the face during family night at the ball park. Ouch! Bring your glove next time.

Matt Johnson is a writer for The Systems Scientist and the Urban Dynamics blog; and is a mathematical scientist. He has also contributed to the Iowa State Daily and Our Black News.

You can connect with him directly in the comments section, and follow him on Twitter or on Facebook

You can also follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook as well. 

Photo credit: We Use Math




Copyright ©2016 – The Systems Scientist


17 replies »

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    • First and foremost, my apology for the delayed response. Your post went straight to my spam folder. Of course that’s on me. I’m still new at this, so I’m still learning. I’ll do a better job in the future of getting your posts approved along with a reply.

      Second, thanks for the kind words, Etta. It means a lot to me. Explaining subject matter such as mathematics and science is not an easy task. It’s nice to know that I’m able to write and articulate such subject matter in an accessible way that could be understood and appreciated. And it’s very nice to know that my writing provides a more useful application for this internet technology. Made my day!

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    • Hello Janine,

      Thanks for your comment and post. I appreciate it. I wouldn’t mind sharing with you at all. I use https://wordpress.com/. I used the blog format for the first nine months and upgraded to the http://www.thesystemsscientist.com web address in late December. WordPress provides the server, support and structure, and they do a pretty good job.

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    • Hello Jami,

      Thanks for the kind words. Your comment, post, and sentiment is good motivation for continuing to write and share about mathematics and science. Until I return to the subject of mathematics, I can suggest to you a couple of similar articles that you may find interesting. The first is Classifying Cities: The Big Picture. In it, I use the idea of the biological classification system (Taxonomy) and propose a classification system for cities here on Earth, on the other planetary bodies here in this solar system, and of course exoplanets. Here’s the article:


      And if you’re looking for a good science fiction read, I suggest The Martian by Andy Weir. It’s a great book with a lot of good, actual science. Here’s book review:


      Thanks again for the comment and post, Jami!

      Have a great day!



    • Hello Susie,

      Thank you! I appreciate the kind words. To be honest, I hadn’t considered a part 2. Huh! Perhaps I should consider a second part. I could go off in my own direction, but the first part was inspired by a Facebook friend. That being said, what would you like me to write about or address concerning the subject of math? There is no wrong answer or suggestion, Susie. I will say this. I thought about writing an article about statistics and probability and how we use it in our everyday lives with little notice, but yet it plays a significant part in our decision making process. That’s one thought.

      Let me know. I would love to your throughts and ideas.

      Have a great day, Susie!



    • Hello Juliane,

      Thanks for your kind words! It is very much appreciated. I am very happy that the article provided you with a pleasant reading experience. I am also happy to hear that you think my article can provide direction and insight to others interested in blogging. My hope is that all of my readers, and other bloggers and potential bloggers, will gain something valuable from the articles I write.

      Thanks again and have a terrific day, Juliane!



    • Hello Bruno,

      Thanks for your comment my friend. I truly do appreciate it. I really do. To have this article described as “an amazing piece of writing” is quite a compliment and it feels great! I hope you don’t mind if I share your words with friends, family, and my other readers. I’m feeling pretty awesome right now!

      Thanks again and have a great day!



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    • Thanks for the compliments, Elbert! I truly do appreciate it. Your kind words make me very happy because I do think about the theme of the site and its versatility for my readers. It’s nice to hear that you’ve found it to be a perfect balance between usability and visual appeal. I would love to hear what else you have to say about some of the other features and content of my site.

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