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The Cambridge dictionary defines mathematics as a system for the study of numbers, shapes, and space (Cambridge.org, n.d.). While most of us conceptualize mathematics as a method for computing complex functions, the true beauty of numbers lies in their ability to transcend cultural and linguistic barriers. Simply put, mathematics is the universal language of science.
In the preface to his seminal Principles of Neural Information Theory, author James Stone explains that the problem with using verbal models to quantify predictive power is their inherent vagueness (Stone, 2018). While successful mathematical models tend, in his words, to be ‘rare and few,’ those that survive quantitative validation are ‘supremely fit’ (Stone, 2018).
Scientific research, particularly as applies to healthcare, requires methodological precision. Theories and hypotheses need to be proven in-order-to ensure safe and efficacious application at the point of care. The best way to do this is with mathematical modeling.
Mathematical modeling circumvents problems inherent in translating ideas from one spoken language to another. This is particularly important for medical science, which increasingly demands international collaboration.
As early as the 1990s. physician writer Lewis Thomas identified cooperation as the defining characteristic of successful research (Thomas, 1992). The sheer numbers required for genomic studies necessitate international collaboration. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the fact that viruses ignore geographical borders. A successful campaign against this threat will need to be international as well. Given that collaboration builds on effective communication, mathematics must be front and center in this effort.
Thomas explains that in evolutionary terms, symbiosis is the ‘greatest trick in the book’ (Thomas, 1992). Human survival is predicated upon our ability to live and work in communities. Building upon this concept, neurologist Gyorgy Buzsaki explains that the greatest difference between modern man and his paleolithic ancestors is not the size or computational capabilities of the brain, but rather the ability to externalize information (Buzsaki, 2019). Mathematics is the universal language for doing this.
For those of us to whom mathematics does not come naturally, attempting to make sense of complicated equations can be frustrating. While children have the neural plasticity to acquire new languages, the process becomes more difficult as we age. But for the reasons described above, mathematics is a language that we should all learn to speak. In a world in which ‘change is the only constant’ (Orlin, 2019), mathematics becomes the driver of scientific inquiry.
Buzsaki, G. (2019). The Brain from Inside Out. Oxford University Press. http://www.oup.com
Cambridge.org (n.d.). Definition of Mathematics. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/mathematics
Orlin, B. (2019). Change is the Only Constant: This Wisdom of Calculus. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. http://www.blackdogandleventhal.com
Stone, J. (2018). Principles of Neural Information Theory: Computational Neuroscience and Metabolic Efficiency. Sebtel Press.
Thomas, L. (1992). The Fragile Species. Charles, Scribner’s Sons, New York.