When you buy a car, follow a recipe, or decorate your home, you’re using math principles. People have been using these same principles for thousands of years, across countries and continents. Whether you’re sailing a boat off the coast of Japan or building a house in Peru, you’re using math to get things done. How can math be so universal? First, human beings didn’t invent math concepts; we discovered them. Also, the language of math is numbers, not English or German or Russian. If we are well versed in this language of numbers, it can help us make important decisions and perform everyday tasks.
Math can help us to shop wisely, buy the right insurance, remodel a home within a budget, understand population growth, or even bet on the horse with the best chance of winning the race. Mathematics is the only language shared by all human beings regardless of culture, religion, or gender. Pi is still approximately 3. 14159 regardless of what country you are in. Adding up the cost of a basket full of groceries involves the same math process regardless of whether the total is expressed in dollars, rubles, or yen.
With this universal language, all of us, no matter what our unit of exchange, are likely to arrive at math results the same way. Very few people, if any, are literate in all the world’s tongues—English, Chinese, Arabic, Bengali, and so on. But virtually all of us possess the ability to be “literate” in the shared language of math. This math literacy is called numeracy, and it is this shared language of numbers that connects us with people across continents and through time. It is what links ancient scholars and medieval merchants, astronauts and artists, peasants and presidents.
With this language we can explain the mysteries of the universe or the secrets of DNA. We can understand the forces of planetary motion, discover cures for catastrophic diseases, or calculate the distance from Boston to Bangkok. We can make chocolate chip cookies or save money for retirement. We can build computers and transfer information across the globe. Math is not just for calculus majors. It’s for all of us. And it’s not just about pondering imaginary numbers or calculating difficult equations. It’s about making better daily decisions and, hopefully, leading richer, fuller lives.