My avatar across the web: a photo of my feet in grey-white socks and brown sandals.

Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Why I love math

Tonight a friend on Facebook asked me: why do you like math? I knew that any suitable answer to that question would be a long one, and as I was cooking at the time and logged into Facebook chat on my phone, and so I deferred. After dinner I began typing a response on Facebook, but then I realized that this is worth its own blog post. I think it’s evident from this blog that I do love math, but I seldom pause to discuss why I love it.

This is what I said three years ago:

For those who don’t understand how someone can be so excited about math, the best way I can describe it is like being closer to God. I don’t necessarily believe in God, but I imagine that what I feel when I’m exploring mathematical concepts is the same feeling pious people get when they do whatever it is pious people do to feel closer to God. And math truly is the language of the universe. If God does exist, in one form or another, then understanding math helps one understand the universe and, in a way, get closer to God and creation.

Well, in the intervening time I have crossed that dark gulf between agnosticism and atheism, but the metaphor still holds. Mathematics is, ultimately, the most powerful tool we have for understanding and interacting with existence itself. There is mathematics behind anything you care to name: music, art, poetry, prose; there’s math in the swing of a baseball bat or in the spiral of a football. So the idea that we can express the fundamental nature of existence through mathematics is incredibly compelling—and also, I think, incredibly beautiful.

Mathematics is a form of communication. When I tell people that my two teachable subjects are math and English, they almost invariably furrow their brows and say something like, “Those aren’t a common combination!” And that might be true, but the implication—that math and English are somehow polar opposites—is not. Both are languages; both are about expressing ideas using an agreed-upon vocabulary, syntax, grammar. One just happens to be the modern world’s lingua franca, while the other has been placed on this pedestal: “Oh, I can’t do math! I just don’t have that kind of brain!”

I don’t recall any particular event that triggered my love of math. I remember favouring it over many of the other subjects when I played school as a child; and of course, it probably helps that I am rather good at it. It’s true too that some people have a talent for math while others struggle—I’m never going to be a star athlete—but I reject the idea that there is a “mathematical brain” as a social construct rather than a neurological edict. After all, I like to read and write too: there is more to me than my left hemisphere, thank you very much. My ability in mathematics helps, but it’s not the sole reason I love math. I love math for the same reasons I love philosophy or physics—for their deeper thought and what they can say about this world, about all possible worlds—and that I majored in math rather than physics or philosophy is perhaps more of a fluke than anything else.

Of course, even though I laud math for its role in our relationship with the physical world, I make no secret of the fact that I love “pure” mathematics. I prefer the dialect of rings and groups over that of differential equations or probability densities. I love the really abstract stuff, the ideas that verge upon being philosophy of mathematics instead of mathematics itself; I love discussing the theories behind the theories. That sort of love isn’t something you can really justify in words. It’s like asking writers where they get their ideas: we can provide a multitude of answers, but the real answer is that we don’t know. Everywhere, and nowhere.

Maybe it’s genetic. Maybe it’s environmental. Maybe the government put a chip in my head. Why do I like math? I don’t have a damn clue.