Have you ever taken a walk through the rain on a warm spring day and seen that perfect puddle? You know, the one where the raindrops seem to touch down at just the right pace, causing a dance of vanishing circles?
In one sense, there’s less mystery in mathematics than there is in any other human endeavour. In math, we can really understand things, in a deeper way than we ever understand anything else. (When I was younger, I used to reassure myself during suspense movies by silently reciting the proof of some theorem: here, at least, was a certainty that the movie couldn’t touch.) So how is it that many people, notably including mathematicians, feel that there’s something ‘mysterious’ about this least mysterious of subjects? What do they mean?
Despite the fact that mathematics is often described as the underpinning science, it is often not given enough credit when scientific discoveries are presented. But the contribution of mathematics and statistics is essential and has transformed entire areas of research – many discoveries would not have been possible without it. In fact, as a mathematician, I have contributed to scientific discoveries and provided solutions to problems that biology was yet to solve.
Remember the graph paper you used at school, the kind that’s covered with tiny squares? It’s the perfect illustration of what mathematicians call a “periodic tiling of space”, with shapes covering an entire area with no overlap or gap. If we moved the whole pattern by the length of a tile (translated it) or rotated it by 90 degrees, we will get the same pattern. That’s because in this case, the whole tiling has the same symmetry as a single tile. But imagine tiling a bathroom with pentagons instead of squares – it’s impossible, because the pentagons won’t fit together without leaving gaps or overlapping one another.