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If I had £1 for every time a student has said to me something along the lines of: “sir, what use is this?” or “sir, when are we ever going to use this in real life?”, well, let’s just say I might be able to afford to go a little further than Blackpool for my summer holidays. But I agree. At times, especially when it is hard, maths can seem a little pointless, and the aim of this section is to answer those questions and to offer up a few suggestions of jobs that you might not immediately think use maths.

Why do we study maths in the first place?

I won’t lie to you. The chances of you ending with a job that requires you to use Sin, Cos and Tan every day, or know all six circle theorems, is pretty remote. And when you are older, the chances of a gorgeous woman/man coming up to you and saying “I would love to go out with you, but if you could just tell me four properties of a trapezium first” are pretty slim as well.

But that is not why we study maths. We study maths because it teaches us a way of thinking. It provides us with a method of solving a whole host of life’s problems away from the classroom.

Firstly, there are the obvious ones like making sure you have enough change for the bus, deciding whether those pair of jeans that are in the sale are actually the bargain of the year or not, and working out whether buying the 2kg packet of salted peanuts is actually better value than the 200g one, and debating whether you need 2kg of salted peanuts in the first place.

But there are much bigger and much more important problems than that. I am talking about problems such as deciding where is best to go for your holidays, how big a mortgage you can afford, which new car should you buy and what type of vehicle financing is available, should you go on a diet, should you take that new job, is this person really going to be the love of your life?

These problems may not appear to have anything to do with the maths you study in school. But they do. All problems we encounter every day have something in common. They all contain a certain amount of information which must be weighed up, sorted out, and then processed in a certain order. And once that information has been processed, it must be interpreted so that an intelligent decision can be made. All this requires planning, logical thinking, maybe a bit of experimentation, and then some evaluating and testing to make sure that the decision you have reached is the best one.

Well, believe it or not, many of these skills are needed and developed when studying maths. Imagine you are presented with nasty looking question about a tower casting a shadow across the ground, and given some information about the length of the shadow and the angle of the sun, you have to work out the height of the tower. Sounds like fun, hey?

Now, let’s just think about what you would need to do to get the answer. Firstly, you would need to weight up all the information and decide what kind of problem this was. Once you are happy that it is trigonometry, next you need to present all the information in a simple, manageable way, maybe by drawing a right-angled triangle. Next up you must decide what formula you need to use and what calculations you need to do. This then requires skills such as multiplying, dividing, re-arranging formulae, calculator skills, and rounding. When you have your answer, you must then check it makes sense by putting it back into the context of the question. Does it make sense for the tower to be 3,569m high? Probably not, so you may have made a mistake, so you go back and look through your working to solve it.

That’s a lot of processes involved in answering a question, but studying maths teaches you to do all of them automatically, without even really thinking too much about what you are doing. Studying maths trains you up to be an expert problem solver, and if you can solve life’s many problems, then you will be doing alright.

Don’t be fooled by Statistics

A specific reason for studying and understanding maths is so you don’t get fooled by statistics. Advertisers just love throwing statistics at us every time we turn on the TV or the radio, or pick up a magazine. And if we are not careful we will end up being scared into buying everything they have to offer.

What about this one: “7 out of 10 women prefer our hair conditioner to their old one

Sounds pretty convincing, right? But before you rush out and snap up twenty bottles, just have a think for a minute. Let’s ask ourselves some questions that the advert doesn’t answer:

How many women were asked, and where did they come from? If the company literally asked just 10 women, and they were all from that company, then I would be a little worried.

Did those 7 out of 10 women think the new conditioner was absolutely fantastic, or just a teeny-weeny bit better than their old one?

What exactly did they prefer: the shape of the bottle, the smell, the special price they paid which was only valid for the fist couple of days?

And what about the other 30% of women, what happened to them? For all we know, all their hair might have fallen out and their scalp turned green.

Here’s another one for you: “8 out of 10 people with a healthy heart eat this breakfast cereal every day

Great, I’ll take 10!

But just hold on a minute. Just because 8 out of 10 people who munched that cereal every day had a healthy heart, doesn’t mean that the cereal somehow made their heart healthy. It could be that the people they asked did 2 hours of exercise every day, never ate chocolate, and lived in the south of France. If you weigh 40 stone, eat chips and chocolate for your tea every night, and your idea of exercise is changing channels on the TV, then tucking into a couple of bowls of cereal probably isn’t going to improve the condition of your heart.

This is an example of a correlation, and is the number one way advertisers try to con us with statistics. Correlations are just relationships between two things, but they certainly don’t mean that one thing causes another. There is often a third factor coming into play.

Here are some others:

People with bigger feet are better at reading

There is not some magical thing in the sole of your foot that determines your reading ability. It is far more likely that people with bigger feet tend to be older, and the older you are the more experience and practice at reading you have had.

As the number of people owning televisions increased in the 1940s, so too did the number of car accidents

This doesn’t mean that the more you watch TV the more you are likely to have a car crash. Again, what is more likely is that more people having television is a sign that society was getting richer, which would also suggest more people were buying cars, and the more cars on the road the more car accidents!

The more you understand statistics, the more you can question the statistics you are fed, and the more informed decisions you can make!

Pretty cool jobs using maths

Whenever you think of a job involving maths, you probably automatically think of an accountant, or a bank manager, or something like that. And unless you are into that kind of thing (and most of my friends from uni seem to be), that can seem a little boring. But here are few another jobs that require the use of maths which might seem a little more appealing:

Jet Fighter Pilot
What is a G? How high am I flying? What is my maximum speed? How much fuel do I have? How far can I fly on a full tank? If an enemy is at 2 o'clock, what does that mean? What direction and speed is the wind? What's an F14? How many missiles do I have left? Which direction am I flying? What speed is super sonic? What is an altimeter? How many degrees of banking do I need? How far am I from my target or base? It's all maths!

Sports Commentator
What is his batting average? What percentage of his wickets are LBW? How many goals per game does he score? From how far out was that last shot? How fast was that last shot? What is the score? How much time is left in the game? Where will this result put them in the league? Can they still be promoted? How many fouls has he made? It's all maths!

How many minutes is that next song? When is the next commercial? How many watts does this radio station generate? What does FM or AM mean? If a station is at 106 FM, what does that mean? What time is it? Can I really play 40 minutes of nonstop music? It's all maths!

Racing Car Driver
How fast was that last lap? How many seconds am I behind or ahead? How many laps can I go on a tank of gas? How fast can I make a pit stop? How much horsepower am I making? What is horsepower? How many RPM's can my engine make before the redline? What is an RPM? How much air pressure do I need in my tires? What is my oil pressure? What do the numbers on all these dials mean? It's all maths!

Movie or TV Camera Operator
What size lens do I need? How far away should I be? How much light is there? What angle should I be shooting from? How far should I zoom in or out? How much film do I need? How much tape do I have left?
It's all maths!

Astronaut / Working in the Space Industry
What is escape velocity? How high does the Space Shuttle orbit? How much time until launch? How many flight hours do I have to have to qualify? How cold is it outside the earth's atmosphere? What is a g force? How much thrust should the booster rockets have? What is the earth's diameter? How faraway is Mars?
It's all maths!