# Why “M” is the most important letter in STEM (and the alphabet)

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I don’t mean to flex when I say this (or maybe I do 💪), but I finished the BC calculus curriculum in seventh grade. Now, as a senior in high school, I’m taking “Analysis and Optimization” at Columbia University. (In case you’re curious, the class deals with the problem of minimizing/maximizing a given function over a set of variables, satisfying given constraints.)

In elementary school, I was deemed a student with a slight natural predisposition for math, but had relatively average scores on the mathematical problem-solving tests meant to weed out the “geniuses” from the “commoners”. How did I, of middle-class status, rise to the elite ranks of mathematical prowess? A mixture of curiosity and brute force. To quote my man Albert,

I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.

I guess I was years ahead of my classmates in terms of insight, not only curriculum, because truly, math is the stepping stone to higher understanding of every, and I mean every, aspect of life.

# So you don’t believe me

It’s okay, I know it’s a controversial statement. Let me explain:

If you think about your everyday life, everything you encounter and experience is, in some way or another, founded in math. What you see and what you hear is merely a collection of sinusoidal light and sound waves pummeling towards your eyes and ears. The matter you touch is comprised of particles, all of which are little building blocks of mathematical properties such as charge and spin. What you think and perceive is encoded in electrical signals, transmitted on the basis of mathematical thresholds and potentials and whatnot.

And I haven’t even scraped the tip of the mathematical iceberg. According to MIT professor and cosmologist, Max Tegmark,

…our universe isn’t just described by math, but that it is math in the sense that we’re all parts of a giant mathematical object, which in turn is part of a multiverse so huge that it makes the other multiverses debated in recent years seem puny in comparison.

(From his book, Our Mathematical Universe)

Mind blown 🤯, am I right? It’s such a jarring switch in mentality, especially if you’ve been brought up to believe that math is just numbers and arithmetic. In reality, it’s so much more.

If you want a nice, visual aid, here’s a “Map of Mathematics” developed by physicist Dominic Walliman, explaining the connection between math and, pretty much, everything.

# How math has given me a leg-up in my studies

So we’ve verified the equation math = everything. But why should you learn mathematics?

I understand mathematics can be a very polarizing matter, like broccoli. I love me a nice dish of sauteed broccoli with crisp slices of garlic and red pepper flakes 🤤, and I salivate for a plate of hand-solved differential equations in a similar fashion. Others may gag at broccoli, traumatized by childhood vegetable quotas.

However, if you are planning on entering STEM, or are already swimming in its depths, building up your knowledge of math will be invaluable to your progress.

In my own life, having a strong foundation in mathematics has given me unique perspectives on many subjects.

When I was in my rudimentary stages of learning about the brain and its structure, my prior knowledge of graph theory allowed me to visualize it as a set of nodes with weighted, directed edges dictating the strength and direction of information transfer.

When I was working on my first project with my lab, LCNeuro, my prior knowledge of control theory allowed me to understand the function of the prefrontal limbic loop as an ambiguity-discerning circuit. Specifically, I grasped the role of the inferior frontal gyrus — the subject of our study —as a “threshold of semantic information,” dictating whether sufficient processing of a stimulus has been achieved.

In my current project, which investigates how networks in the brain cooperate and compete for representation and resources, my prior knowledge of game theory allowed me to create a mathematical framework of these networks’ interactions.

# But… what if I’m not interested in STEM?

Well… YOU SHOULD STILL LEARN MATH!

Let’s count the reasons why:

1. 🧠 Learning math is good for your brain: Math teaches you to see connections, and therefore develops neural pathways that strengthen your pattern-identifying and connection-making abilities. Your enhanced problem-solving will allow you to handle unfamiliar tasks with ease, and will promote rational thinking in your daily dilemmas (Is the dress white and gold or black and blue?).
2. 💰 Math helps you with your finances: Money is math, so whether you’re balancing your bank account or spotting a good deal, math will prevent you from going broke. Plus, people always value the friend who can quickly divide a check at a restaurant.
3. 🧐 Math increases your appreciation for nature’s wonders: Making sense of a world that often doesn’t make sense can give you a moment of inner peace when you feel like your life is in chaos. Take a moment to identify how the Fibonacci sequence manifests in pinecones, seashells, trees, flowers, and leaves. Or observe the presence of fractals in ice crystals, air bubbles, coastlines, and heads of Romanesco broccoli (I really like broccoli).
4. 🌐 Math is a universal language: I may say “tuh may to,” and you may say “tuh mah to,” but we should both agree that 1+1=2. The point is that a mathematical equation doesn’t need to be translated into another language to be understood by someone on the other side of the planet. The universality of math makes it a powerful tool for the communication of ideas.

# The takeaway

To be blunt, go and learn some math. Here are some great YouTube channels (because videos are just better in general) to spark your curiosity and help you embark on your intellectual journey:

• Numberphile: “Videos about numbers — it’s that simple.”
• 3Blue1Brown: “3Blue1Brown, by Grant Sanderson, is some combination of math and entertainment, depending on your disposition. The goal is for explanations to be driven by animations and for difficult problems to be made simple with changes in perspective.”
• Khan Academy: “Khan Academy is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with the mission of providing a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. Our interactive practice problems, articles, and videos help students succeed in math, biology, chemistry, physics, history, economics, finance, grammar, and many other topics.”
• Stand-up Maths: “I do mathematics and stand-up. Sometimes simultaneously. Occasionally while being filmed. (It’s quite the Venn diagram.)”

👋 I am Danielle Gruber and I am a 17-year-old innovator at The Knowledge Society, with particular interests in neuroscience, computer science, math, and everything in-between.

Contact me 👇