Magazine

What Math Can And Cannot Do For Business


Your article "Math will rock your world" (Cover Story, Jan. 23) made clear to me the many industries where math talent is needed. The latest hype is the outsourcing of American jobs, many in math-related fields, to Asia. If we want to put a stop to this trend, we must encourage a greater interest in math-related career paths at the high school level and below.

In my experience, math classes are taught in the most bland and uninteresting way, leading many students to despise the subject. Corny "word problems" are not enough to persuade students to pursue careers in math. High school classes need to move beyond just teaching math and must instill a greater fascination in math by showing the vast fields to which it can be applied.

Kevin Graney

Student

Council Rock High School North

Newtown, Pa.

I found it unfortunate that you trotted out one of the usual solutions to the math problem, namely "engaging more girls and ethnic minorities." What this usually ends up meaning is that the few resources available are diverted to programs focused solely on gender, race, or ethnicity, and not on the student's talent and interest level. But even worse is what I see at my son's elementary school, where it is clear that the emphasis, both in time and money, is on bringing the underachieving students up to a basic level. Few resources are spent on the students who are excelling already. The GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program at our school receives only enough funds to pay for one day of specialized instruction.

To make matters worse, the schools generally will not group the high achievers together. Instead they are deliberately spread out, a few to each class, with the supposed belief that this benefits all students. The end result is that they lose interest in math because all they experience in school relative to math is boredom.

Thomas Fuchs

Bonita, Calif.

Every student in this country should read "Why math will rock your world" to understand why a strong math education is important and to answer the question, "When are we ever going to use this?" It's up to all of us -- teachers, parents, and business -- to inspire our youth and help them excel. "We All Use Math Every Day," a program brought to life through the partnership of a leading technology company and the entertainment industry, and in association with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, is helping to do just that by providing teachers with real-life activities based on the math used in the CBS television show Numb3rs (cbs.com/numb3rs).

Each week, teachers and students can discuss the math behind the show's crime-solving. More than 20,000 have signed up for this math program, with thousands downloading the activities each week.

Melendy Lovett, President

Educational & Productivity Solutions

Texas Instruments

Dallas

I was glad you covered the ethical aspects of the new power we've discovered. Informatics and analytics present so much power to the ingenious mathematician that with every curious step we may be unknowingly weaving a web of privacy issues, or worse.

Saif R. Ahmed, Chairman

Elysium Analytics Inc.

Brooklyn, N.Y.

A key statement in the closing of the article notes that midcareer managers "still must understand enough about math to question the assumptions behind the numbers." Not so. Knowledge of math technique is useless here. It is intimate knowledge of the enterprise the math is being applied to that will prepare midcareer managers to challenge the realism of the assumptions.

Math methods applied to unrealistic assumptions cannot be expected to yield golden truths. Garbage in, garbage out -- as the saying goes.

William J. Adams

Professor of Mathematics

Pace University

New York

Stephen Baker's article makes it sound as if the business world has just discovered the industrial application of modern math techniques. In reality, this has been ongoing since Claude Guinness hired William S. Gossett, a chemist and statistician, to work at the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, in 1899. Gossett developed and published the t-test, probably the most widely used of all statistical tools. The t-test measured how closely the yeast content of a particular batch of beer corresponded to the brewery's standard (e.g., utilization of statistics for quality control). But it is widely applied to many populations for which limited sampling data is available.

Because Guinness Brewery did not allow employees to publish research under their own names, to maintain industrial secrecy, the t-test was published under the name "Student" in Biometrika in 1908. As a result, the t-test is frequently referred to as the "Student's t-test."

If you're a consumer of Guinness, math has already been rocking your world for quite some time.

Richard Vulliet

Davis, Calif.

I believe in science and math, but I am not sure that I understood the article about the use of math in business. Here is what did not come across: Who writes the equation for better customer service? Who writes the equation for competent people who can service products? Who writes the equation that takes in all the variables in business and life? The author used IBM (IBM)as an example. However, with all the math it pioneered, IBM was in deep trouble until Lou Gerstner came along! Is there an equation for Gerstner?

Anthony Tataseo

Hamilton Square, N.J.

A key problem worth underscoring is that a little knowledge of math can provide dangerous levels of confidence. For example, you suggest those "who really understand probability won't squander savings on state lotteries."

Well, the real mathematicians know that option value kicks in where probability leaves off, so that it often is smart to buy a lottery ticket. An easy way to explain: You won't notice $1 less in your pocket (so it practically costs you nothing), but you really will notice $40 million, should you win.

Jeff Buchmiller

Pilot Point, Tex.

"Math will rock your world," combined with "Davos will be different" (Viewpoint, Jan. 23), on India's rising innovation, and the "Business Prophet" (Special Report), on C.K. Prahalad, created the perfect storm that prompted me to write this letter. What most people don't know is that math was invented on the Indian subcontinent thousands of years ago. My forefathers, known as "Saraswat Brahmins," who lived on the banks of the river Saraswati in the Indus Valley, developed basic mathematics and astronomy to build "fire altars" and determine the exact time for religious rites well before the Christian era.

The Vedas and Vedantas contain references to these early works including the decimal number system and the use of zero. Later, the Sulba-Sutras expanded on these developments, including the irrational number system, quadratic equations, the so-called Pythagorean Theorem and Pythagorean Triples, the value of pi, and other mathematical proofs that European history writers wrongfully attributed to Pythagoras, Euclid, and other Greeks.

Contrary to European-written history, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry were all invented and used in religious rites on the Indian subcontinent. It's time to rewrite math history and put in India's rightful place!

Subash Khadpe

Slatington, Pa.

In "Gold rush" (Investigative Report, Jan. 9), your writer paraphrased a quote from me saying that there were billions of dollars of transactions using the digital gold currencies such as e-gold and GoldMoney. The context of his story was the criminal use of digital gold in some transactions. Hundreds of thousands of people use digital gold in transactions worth billions for good business purposes. Many of these people seek to avoid the hidden tax of inflation imposed by the Federal Reserve through its paper money.

An examination of the use of Federal Reserve notes would also find them used extensively in crime, but one doesn't expect the Secret Service to raid Alan Greenspan's home.

Jim Davidson

Global Digital Currency Assn.

New York


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