I do not like math

by lsusr1 min read29th Apr 20206 comments

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I do not like math very much.

I do not find math completely boring. If I were stuck in a prison cell I'd happily do math until I expired from a ruptured spline. Insofar as I have escaped prison, I have attempted to escape math too.

Avoiding math was particularly difficult while I earned my bachelor's degree with majors in physics and (a-hem) pure mathematics. Undaunted, I found many ways to avoid doing real math while ostensibly doing math.

The lowest-hanging fruit to go unpicked was proofs. Many math classes are nothing but a professor proving a single theorem. We were never tested on anything but the conclusion. Students majoring in math are expected to pay intrinsic interest to these lectures. I daydreamed through them all. A mathematician writing a proof of a theorem is strong Bayesian evidence the theorem is true. Lots of other students watched the professors for errors. Transparency is the best disinfectant. This is good enough for me. With so much transparency, reading the proofs felt redundant, like irradiating my hands and then washing them. I wash my hands of, well, washing my hands.

My favorite method of avoiding math is proof by contradiction. Proof by contradiction assumes a theorem is false and then contradicts itself with a counterexample. It's obscenely dissatisfying.

Alas, some things are not provable by contradiction. This called for last resorts. Unable to do real math, I performed a physics substitution. I translated the math problem into physics, solved the problem and then translated it back into pure mathematics. In this way, calculus became kinematics, real analysis became electrodynamics, complex analysis became quantum mechanics, group theory became gauge theory and linear algebra became machine learning.

I didn't start gauge theory and machine learning until after I had nearly failed my algebra classes. Oops. Aside from this hiccup, my degree in pure mathematics became a cozy math supplement to my physics degree.

My professors taught me lots of math despite my best efforts to the contrary. For this I am grateful. Math was the second-hardest subject I've ever studied. Some day I hope to be good enough at math that I can work out how to not come across as "weird" in an informal social setting.

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I wash my hands of, well, washing my hands.

Maybe finding/making a proof you understand can increase understanding. (Aside from the issue of seeing what proof techniques are effective*.) How to handle issues around things like pragmatism though, isn't super clear.

*There's a lot of stuff in math I haven't "proved" which I think is true.


I performed a physics substitution.

This sounds really interesting.

I appreciate you writing this especially given that the userbase on this site includes a lot of people who really like math.

One thing I'm curious about - it seems like you enjoy physics. Do you enjoy using math to do / understand physics? If so, what do you think the difference is? Is it just that you especially dislike proofs or is it also something related to the concreteness / applied nature of it?

To me, mathematics is like lifting weights. I don't like lifting weights. I do it anyway, halfheartedly and with poor form, because I need to move furniture sometimes.

I am extrinsically motivated to do math. So why didn't I major in applied mathematics? I worried "applied mathematics" would be watered down. Besides, I want my professors to be rigorous. Reading and writing proofs of known facts is a higher level of rigor than matters to me most of the time. On the other hand, writing proofs for new theorems is lots of fun.

Math is a logic of words founded on absolute truth. I believe in neither words nor absolute truth. I can play by the rules of logic, but deep down I think probabilistically.

In a paper I once read from which I now possess only a screenshot, I saw the following proof in an appendix:

Assume not $Z_1 \neq Z_2$
Expanding the definitions, we see that $Z_1 = Z_2$
This is a contradiction.
Thus, $Z_1 = Z_2$

Where $Z_1, Z_2$ were the diffusion-convolution activations of two isomorphic graphs. (These words don't mean anything to me, I'm just reading my screenshot.)

I think I better understand the process that generated this proof.

Yeah, being good with proofs is mostly useful for doing original work in math. You don't need it for applying known math.

Why did you not go for engineering (like me)? Still some math proves but no one listens and they will not test it either.

Twice I made the mistake to ask 'why' it is the way it is. All I got was "look at the prove, it works out". That is why have have little respect for mathematicians i.g..