Unveiling Why Do Math

May 27, 2010

Ask an engineer or an accountant and they would probably come up with a multitude of reasons to do math.

But a sailor in a yacht race? An underdog in a close political contest? A fraction of a second in the first case and a few votes in the second can make all the difference, and math has a lot to do with it, as Why Do Math sets out to explain.

Brainchild of former SIAM President Marty Golubitsky, Why Do Math combines the appeal of multimedia learning with practical applications of mathematics to make the topic exciting to high school and college students -- or just about anyone.

Whether one wants to simply get acquainted with the ways in which math can add value to the real world or delve deep into the hard numbers behind concepts, the site caters to every need. It is designed to appeal as much to the cursory viewer as the in-depth learner.

The "America's Cup" section, for instance, tantalizes with an interesting tidbit about the triumph of lofty, land-locked Switzerland over the island nation of New Zealand in a premier sailing contest. For those adequately piqued, mathematical models behind engineering of yacht design are revealed in subsequent pages. Numerical simulations that factor in airflow, fluid interactions, and wind speeds are only a few further clicks away.

The section on "Voting" traces history through the first known democracy in Sparta and the factors that influenced Abraham Lincoln's victory in the 1860 U.S. elections before detailing the recent Voter Choice Act. Once readers are drawn in, it goes on to stealthily educate them on the facts behind plurality and majority rules, the Borda count, and instant runoffs, finally tying them in with Kenneth Arrow's Impossibility Theorem.

While the textual rendition is convincing enough, Why Do Math reinforces facts by building layers of multimedia over it. Using a series of engaging examples, hard mathematics and descriptive schematics, the various "nodes" attempt to explain everything from routine events that occur in the human brain to interplanetary superhighways that are, quite literally, out of this world.

For those thirsting for more, the "Reading Room" showcases select articles from around the Web that make for interesting reading, and the resource links offer up a list of other online math projects. The "Careers" section provides resources for those contemplating a career in mathematics.

While Why Do Math's goal is simple, the work that has gone into it is hardly so. Co-directors Marty Golubitsky and Hinke Osinga have worked on the project for several years, along with help from Consultant Katherine Socha, and the steering committee comprising Chris Budd, John Burns, and Peter Turner, not to mention extensive support from SIAM and insightful input from all contributors. It's too good to be kept under wraps anymore, so we're pulling the curtains: whydomath.org

Why Do Math is an open-ended project and is still growing. If you have a suggestion for a node topic, please email: whydomath@siam.org

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