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Walt Pohl's Math FAQ
Last modified: Sun Jul 27 23:43:12 1997

Mathematics Frequently Asked Questions

Most people seem to find the notion of mathematician to be an exotic one. Since the World Wide Web is an unparalleled opportunity to educate the public about alternate lifestyle choices, I thought I would write this document to answer Frequently Asked Questions about modern mathematics, and about mathematicians.

Question: Isn't mathematics already done? What more is there left to do?

Answer: There are plenty of unanswered questions in mathematics. For example, there are plenty of 11 and 12 digit numbers that no one has ever added, subtracted, multiplied, or divided. Considering the increasing importance of truly large numbers in the modern global economy -- for example, the U.S. Federal debt alone is a 13 digit number -- there is great need for further research by mathematicians everywhere. Grant money in the 7 digit range should be adequate for my own contributions, if you happen to have your checkbook handy.

Question: Mathematics was my least favorite subject in high school/college.

Answer: I'm not an expert in communicating in English (not enough Greek letters), but I believe that this is not actually a question. But trust me, mathematics was our least favorite subject in high school and college too. But it wasn't until graduate school that we learned exactly how much you can hate a subject, and yet still keep taking classes in it.

Question: How can I remember the digits of Pi?

Answer: You can remember the digits of Pi by this simple mnemonic: Man I Need A Drink, Alcoholic Of Course. I'm not going to tell you how you can use that to figure out the digits of Pi -- if we mathematicians make it too easy for the rest of you, we'll find ourselves all unemployed.

Question: If math is so important, why aren't there any famous mathematicians?

Answer: Just a couple of years ago, mathematicians would have scratched their heads at that one. While the great names of mathematics, such as Gargamel, Rasputin, and Vlad the Impaler, are household names in those households that happen to have mathematicians in them, they elicit little name recognition in the public at large. But recently the efforts of a single mathematician have grabbed hold of the public imagination, raising the profile of the field to its highest ever. I refer, of course, the University of California at Berkeley's own, the Unabomber.

Question: I believe that any great discovery, if it is truly important, can be explained in everyday language. Can you explain a great discovery of mathematics so that everyone can understand?

Answer: There are a great many discoveries that can be understood by the average person on the street. For example, did you know that there are 28 different differentiable structures you can impose on the 7-sphere? More is known than ever before about the higher homotopy groups of spheres. And did you know that we are close to a complete classification of the representations of real reductive Lie groups?

Wait, don't go! Let me try again! Let's take an old discovery, one that most people take for granted, but has had incalculable effect on the modern world -- the humble zero. Without the zero, basic arithmetic would never have been possible. For example, it would probably be impossible for anyone to be an accountant without the zero. Wait, maybe we should be apologizing for that one instead...

Question: Wow, you must be good at math. Can you help me balance my checkbook?

Answer: No.

Question: Wow, you must be good at math. It must be so easy for you to balance your checkbook.

Answer: Surprisingly, this is not the case. Mathematicians are so bitter about technological advance encroaching on their traditional preserve -- really boring calculations -- that they have allowed all of their conventional arithmetic skills to erode, instead spending their time thinking up problems that calculators still can't do. For example, I doubt I could successfully add 17 and 13, but I can tell you off the top of my head that 210938450938450934852 - 1 is a multiple of 3.

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