Consumer of Mathematics

“I am a consumer of mathematics, I do not calculate anything,” a friend said to me, over lunch at a Nepalese restaurant.  I have asserted everyone uses math constantly, whether it is to add up the grocery bill before heading to the cashier or to identify a forty-five-degree angle.  She is a designer and curator.  She knows and understands what looks good to the human eye; what looks natural, attractive, or artificial.  For this you need math.  The ability to identify parallel lines, a perfect circle, or the space between.  It started me down a tangent, to discover how we all use math, even when we claim to hate it or know nothing about it.

The basics

We use addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division every day.  We add up our grocery bill: €0.99 for broccoli + €3.99 for cheddar cheese + €1.49 for potatoes + €6.83 for chicken breast – the 15% off coupon received in the mail = €11.31 (well, €11.305 but money requires full cents and rounding principles state five and above to go up).

In the small example above the concepts of order of operations, percentages, and rounding are all encompassed in a simple daily activity.

How long will it take to get to Salzburg by train?  Consulting the train schedule helps, however, someone had to do the basic calculation to present the answer on the brochure.  If the train travels 140 km/h, on average, and the distance from Vienna to Salzburg is 296 km, then it looks something like this:

Distance ÷ Speed = Time 

296km ÷ 140km/h = 2.11 hour (2 hours and 6 minutes, approximately)

To calculate the hours and minutes is simple as well, and we do it all the time without realizing it.  A quarter of an hour is 15 minutes.  In this case 1/10 of an hour is 6 minutes.

How much time you need to budget for your car trip to Innsbruck works the same way. It is all based on a simple triangle, you know, the one we learned about in school.

Image from BBC Standard Grade Bitesize website.

It also works when you know what time your mother left her house and the time which she arrived, the distance she had to cover between her house and yours, and then you realize your mother sped all the way down the motorway covering a distance regularly requiring two and a half hours of your time in one hour and forty-five minutes.  Meaning you definitely did not have quite enough time to finish cleaning the flat.

Getting slightly more complex

Renovations are often expensive.  Even painting the walls can be an expensive enterprise, but you calculate how much paint you need and make your purchases accordingly and this might make it less expensive.

Those calculations would look something like this:

Two walls are 5m x 4m and the other two walls are 3m x 4m.  You need to know the area of each wall and then how much each container of paint covers.  The accepted principle is one litre of paint covers 10sqm.  And you want to do two coats of a vibrant colour.

The first step is to calculate the total area you need covered.  As we are dealing with a rectangle, it means there are two pairs of sides.

2(length x width) + 2(length x width)

2(5m x4m) + 2(3m x 4m) = 40sm + 24sm = 64sm 

For how many litres of paint:

2(Area to be covered in paint ÷ Area 1l of paint will cover) 

2(64sm ÷ 10sm) = 2(6.4l) = 12.8l

Now I can buy the appropriate amount of paint.

We also use complex statistics every day.  Through creating and interpreting pie charts, bar graphs, line graphs, and polar radial diagrams.   We take in and process complex mathematical information through these mediums.

Dauntingly complex

There are people who make their living with math, statisticians, actuaries, topologists, to name a few.  Most of us do not perform mathematics anywhere near where these professionals. However, we do perform complex mathematics every day.

We rotate objects in our mind.  If we approach a building from a different angle we can still identify it because we can rotate it in our head and see the other sides.  We can read maps showing gradients and calculate inclines when we go hiking and this informs our choice of trails and equipment.  For those of us who have our own websites we constantly monitor traffic and know which types of articles people will likely read – statistics and probabilities.


Given all of this are we merely consumers of mathematics?.  I still assert we use and process mathematical information every day.  We use everything from basic math to complex statistics in our daily life.  We calculate our own grocery bills, household budgets, fuel consumption. Checking the veracity of our monthly bills is only possible if weyou understand not only the basics or arithmetic but more complex concepts.   Complex and logically thinking are all extensions of mathematics, so too is problem solving. We are not merely consumers of someone else’s efforts and equations, but active users.



Header image used under Creative Commons Licence from Pixabay.

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About Jennifer Cornick

Freelance journalist and blogger for various publications in Vienna. When I am not writing, I can generally be found with a book (or anything with words on it - even cereal boxes).

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