Op-Ed: Math Wasn’t Created or Discovered. It was Crowd Worked

It’s the classic question with no answer until today. Where does math come from? On one side you got all those intellectuals who love to talk about Gödel and his incompleteness theorem without even understanding it who think it’s not even consistent with itself. On the other side, there are loads of science worshipers who think fractals are just the coolest thing ever. I doubt any of them have even programmed a fractal. I have, they’re not that interesting. Still cool. 

Boring picture of something probably made with fractals
Boring picture of something probably made with fractals

Me personally? I don’t want to give humans that much credit. Math may be a cool and extremely useful thing but I don’t think most of math is slaving over proof writing until it’s perfect. Likewise, as a baptized Christian who believes in the goodness of God, I don’t want to blame him for having to derive fourier transforms all through college and grad-school. I want to just blame the French for that. There’s something that perfectly describes math that even better is something every math professor hates. Trial and error. 

Yup, math is from centuries of intellectuals crowd-working their ideas until they get the answer they like. Along the way, they even have to deal with hecklers affectionately nicknamed reviewer #2. If you don’t know who reviewer #2 is, just wait for grad school. For all of recorded history, mathematicians have just been working and reworking their methods to make sure it has been laughing with them and not at them. 

Pythagoras telling bad jokes in Crotos
Pythagoras telling bad jokes in Crotos (Edited Image from MelonbobCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

But doesn’t that mean it was invented? I wouldn’t say that. You can make math do whatever you want and structure it however you want but only that feedback loop keeps it useful and where does that feedback loop come from? It’d getting inspiration from something that isn’t the mathematician. 

But doesn’t that mean that it is discovered? Just very slowly? Probably not. What would we even be discovering? Physics? In between quantum mechanics, dark energy, and to a lesser extent dark matter, I’m not convinced we have more than an approximate understanding of the math behind physics. Newton created Calculus to explain physics because that apple was laughing at him and not with him. I’m sure someone will make a new calculus once we figure out how that weird stuff works. 

Newton presenting his research in London to boos from the crowd "Get better math" they yelled.
Newton presenting his research in London to boos from the crowd “Get better math” they yelled. (Edited Image from glastocabaretCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I’d be at least willing to say math is inspired by physics. Every artist needs their muse. The stuff certainly is useful and it makes people a lot of money, which is yet another thing that questionably doesn’t exist. Luckily math stays funny for a long time. It takes a while for the material to get old and stop working. It’s like you can keep telling the same old knock knock joke which has been killing for hundreds of years. 

What makes me really believe that Math has been crowd worked is that people create math which is absolutely useless for hundreds of years. Then they find an audience. Just like when computers made all sorts of math and approximations useful, suddenly all of this old material got an hour long netflix special because it had been enough time. Like when a tragedy is finally funny because it’s been at least 22.3 years.
A lot of people may not like the idea that all of the world’s scientists are just guessing and blindly trying things. But yeah, that’s a lot of the work. You just have to write it down when it does work or lie about it with P-hacking. The smart people will even write down the things that don’t work so that they don’t try it again. Personally, I make the same mistakes over and over again because I’ve never been afraid of bombing.

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Published by B McGraw

B McGraw has lived a long and successful professional life as a software developer and researcher. After completing his BS in spaghetti coding at the department of the dark arts at Cranberry Lemon in 2005 he wasted no time in getting a masters in debugging by print statement in 2008 and obtaining his PhD with research in screwing up repos on Github in 2014. That's when he could finally get paid. In 2018 B McGraw finally made the big step of defaulting on his student loans and began advancing his career by adding his name on other people's research papers after finding one grammatical mistake in the Peer Review process.

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