Algebra – It’s Everywhere

A good read from the San Francisco Chronicle:  Algebra – it’s everywhere by Jill Tucker.

Algebra, says Devlin, is a language, a very precise language written in symbols, and it’s everywhere: in nearly all electronic devices, every statistic and each Internet search engine – and, indeed, in every train leaving Boston.

"You can store information using it. You can communicate information using it," Devlin said. "Google has made billions capitalizing on algebra."

Yet our schools don’t always do a very good job teaching it, Devlin said. Instead of showing students the possibilities and beauty algebra offers, they ultimately steer frustrated and bored students away from math and the 21st century careers that use it – the opposite of the intended result.

Algebra, by the dictionary’s definition, is essentially abstract arithmetic, letters and symbols representing relationships between groups, sets, matrices or fields. It’s a way to find a piece to a puzzle using the pieces you already have in place.

It comes in very handy for engineers, financial analysts and sociologists, not to mention World of Warcraft video game players, some of whom use algebraic formulas to decide which weapon is more effective under certain circumstances – perhaps another hook to lure unsuspecting teens into seeing the useful side of algebra.

Laptop computer. The computer is just an implementation in electrical circuits of a special form of algebra (called Boolean algebra) invented in the 19th century. Ordinary algebra is used to design and manufacture computers, and is at the heart of how to program them.

Cell phone. A cell phone is a particular kind of computer. An important feature of cell phones is that your phone receives all the signals sent to every cell phone in the region, but only responds to signals sent to your phone. This is achieved by using signal coding systems built on algebra.

Parking cop. Today’s parking enforcement officers may carry equipment connecting them directly to a central vehicle database that registers your parking fine before you get back to the car and see the ticket on the windshield. Without algebra, such a system could not exist.

Hybrid car. Modern cars often come equipped with GPS, a highly sophisticated system that is designed using enormous amounts of mathematics that builds on algebra.

Delivery truck. Large retail chains use mathematical methods to determine the routing and scheduling of their delivery trucks; algebra is fundamental to those methods.

Stoplight. These days, stoplights are centrally controlled by computers, so there is even algebra involved in turning the light from red to green.

IPod. This is a math device in your hand. The iPod stores music using sophisticated mathematics built on algebra. And the iPod shuffle mechanism uses regular school algebra to order your songs randomly.

Even though it is a very pro-algebra article, my favorite quote was by an unknown source:

"Algebra … the intensive study of the last three letters of the alphabet."

4 thoughts on “Algebra – It’s Everywhere

  1. …no no no. This article has it all wrong. It’s like my cousin said, “The time I spent learning Algebra was a waste. I haven’t used it once. The most valuable class I had in high school was typing.”


  2. I teach a low-level algebra course, wherein we take a year to cover the first semester of an ordinary algebra course. I’d *love* it if someone developed some “this is how algebra is used” curriculum that would be comprehensible and interesting to low-skilled math students.

    Any suggestions?


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