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The engineer, the physicist and the mathematician

By Murray Bourne, 14 Nov 2006

This one is old, but I like it:

An engineer, a physicist and a mathematician were all working on a problem late at night smoking a cigarette. They each tossed their smoldering cigarettes in their trashbins and fell asleep, and all three woke to find their trashbins on fire.

The engineer did a rough calculation in his mind to gauge how much water would be needed to put his fire out. He put on twice as much just to be sure and then when the fire was out he went back to bed.

The physicist did a quick calculation in his mind, put the exact amount of water on the fire and when it was out he went back to bed.

The mathematician did a quick calculation in his head, and − satisfied with the results − went back to bed.

I struggle with the notion of "unapplied" mathematics - is it really worth doing? The mathematician in me says yes (since I do enjoy the satisfaction of solving a problem and playing with "what ifs"), but for the average student, mathematics is just something to suffer until graduation day. This is usually because such students never see a real application.

I think it would be a good outcome if students were interested to learn mathematics because they needed to solve some authentic problem, rather than because it is the next topic in the textbook.

We need to make mathematics learning more meaningful, and that usually means that it needs to be more authentic.

See the 2 Comments below.

2 Comments on “The engineer, the physicist and the mathematician”

  1. Michael says:

    I agree, wholeheartedly. The current maths curriculum is very outdated. Legislators have made changes to every other subject, but for some reason, no one wants to mess with maths.

    What's the problem? Maths is treated as "the thing that doesn't need justification".

  2. Murray says:

    Thanks for the input, Michael.

    Sometimes I think mathematics is being protected by an "old boys club" that is threatened when we talk about changes to a system that perpetuates "math for math's sake".

    As Al Gore quoted in An Inconvenient Truth, people have difficulty understanding anything that affects their salary.

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