I’m going to let you in on a secret. The main reason I chose my major in college was because it didn’t require any math. I started out school in Pre-Med, but after my first Chemistry class decided I needed to find a major that didn’t involve a lot of numbers. Hello, Communications! Once I passed my college calculus course, I was glad to be done with number-crunching.
That sentiment carried over when I went to seminary. We spend a lot of time in all different church-related areas, but there was not one seminary class on math. Of course, after reading church budgets and sitting in Finance Team meetings, there are times when I wish math WAS included in seminary.
While I don’t regret not focusing more on math in school, a book I recently read makes me think I may have been missing out on a lot more than just how to add and subtract. The book is cheekily called “Here’s Looking at Euclid: From Counting Ants to Games of Chance – An Awe-Inspiring Journey Through the World of Numbers.” The author, Alex Bellos, is a former journalist with a life-long love for math. He combines those two interests in this book, which looks at the role math plays in every aspect of our lives.
While parts of the book go over my head, I found most of it to be very entertaining and enlightening. Bellos gives some history on how we got our number system and the names for each one. He also expounds upon the development of our base-10 number system and all the different ways cultures have used numbers. For example, the ancient Babylonians used a base-60 numbering system that was eventually adopted by the Greeks. That is why, in our modern way of telling time, there are 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour. In 1793, the French tried to convert to a base-10 time system (100 seconds in a minute, 100 minutes in an hour, 10 hours in a day) but abandoned it because it was too confusing.
While I enjoyed the book as a fun read, I also found some interesting insights from a theological perspective. The more Bellos delves into the pervasiveness of numbers in our world, the more he saw patterns that emerged. From the Pythagorian Theorem (a2 + b2 = c2) to joys of recreational math, like Sudoku, Bellos recognizes that one of math’s functions is to create order out of chaos.
For example, take the Golden Mean, which Bellos describes as “the number the describes the precise ratio when a line is cut into two sections in such a way that the proportion of the entire line to the larger section is equal to the proportion of the larger section to the smaller section.” Now, I’m not quite sure what that means, even with helpful diagrams, but what I do know is that this ratio shows up in nature over and over again, in everything from anatomy to handwriting. It’s a naturally-occurring pattern.
Another example is the Fibonacci sequence, in which the subsequent number is the sum of the two previous numbers (0+1=1, 1+1=2, +2=3, 2+3=5, 3+5=8, etc.). The number of petals on most flowers is a Fibonacci number. Fibonacci numbers also occur in the spiral arrangements on the surfaces of pinecones, pineapples, cauliflower and sunflowers.
And then there’s the concept of infinity, which isn’t as simple as you would think. Did you know there’s such a thing as an infinity bigger than infinity? You’ll have to read the book for the full explanation, but that’s another proof that our world is more complex and intricate than we could ever imagine.
Of course, this all points me directly to God, the Ultimate Infinity. The fact that math brings order out of chaos reflects the creative work of God at the beginning of Genesis, and the patterns that occur over and over again in nature are like God’s fingerprints on Creation. Math is just another way that science points us toward the work of God in this world. You can count on it!