TEDxSydney: Maths is in all of us

28 April 2014

Dr Clio Cresswell
Dr Clio Cresswell

At every stage of human history mathematics is there to explain our behaviour, says Dr Clio Cresswell, from the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Sydney.

Speaking at TEDxSydney on Saturday Dr Cresswell described how "mathematics is one of our most powerful methods of pattern discovery and is now used to help us with our understanding of everything, right though to sex."

Dr Cresswell explained how most of us are familiar with equations defining physics and engineering but as human culture changes so does the maths describing it. In the 1980s there was a boom of mathematics in the finance industry then from the 1990s it began to venture into biology, psychology and sociology.

"New mathematics appears every day and the breadth of applications is dazzling. From describing the best way to administer antibiotics or how voltages travel through our neurons, from how to temper chocolate to what contributes to a lasting marriage maths is one of our most powerful methods of pattern discovery."

Research now shows that you can prime your brain to engage in analytical or creative problem solving but maths is a mix of both Dr Cresswell explained.

"Which leads us to the big question I'm currently researching, the origin of mathematics. What is this thing called mathematics that has been going for just over two thousand years - this craft that popped up independently across the globe ... that so many swear they can't do?"

Pattern recognition is a core feature of the evolutionary sequence of life on earth and present throughout the animal kingdom. Reptiles can recognise whether it's something to eat, fight, or have sex with. A jelly fish 'knows' which way is up and which way's down, packs of animals know if they're outnumbered by another pack.

"Mathematics lives right at the roots of humanity and is within all of us. With the development of human language came not just the means to name things but the language of reasoning, and maths is our most precise use of our syntactical reasoning," Dr Cresswell said.

"At each and every step of the pattern linking discovery, you have to decide whether it's in the classification you're dealing with or not, 'true or false' - is it in or not. Ultimate precision."

This is why mathematics is so powerful, Dr Cresswell said, and is being used more and more, including to describe sex and love. And why it's so challenging.

"Because you're actually making use of our most unique developmental traits right to their very limits."

Currently Dr Cresswell is researching the role of maths in society and how a recognition of its intimate connection with our language ability could benefit the way it is taught.

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