(Lansing State Journal, June 16, 1993)
Question submitted by Courtney Meister.
Math is a set of tools used by scientists to describe patterns which they observe. Often scientists must measure some phenomenon. In doing so, they quantify some aspect of it, such as length or mass or activity. These numbers are commonly referred to as data points. Patterns may exist in the data obtained, and scientists use a variety of mathematical techniques to discover those patterns. The types of math they choose varies depending on the type of experiment performed.
Scientists in different fields use math to different degrees, but all use some math in their work. Arithmetic is used most often, but algebra is also common in every science. Biologists and chemists must use algebra to figure out how much of different compounds to mix together in making their reactions. You may already know that trigonometry is used a lot in engineering, to design buildings, bridges, and machines, but it is also used in physics to determine more fundamental aspects of nature, from the period of a pendulum to the orbits of the planets. Statistics, a field of math that describes probabilities, is used more and more as scientists study complex systems that are not readily described by a single equation. Ecologists commonly use statistics to recognize trends in the growth and development of habitats. Even more sophisticated forms of math, including several types of calculus, have been used by scientists for hundreds of years!
As scientists learn more and more, the phenomenon that they study is described in more complex ways. Computers are commonly employed to make calculations that could not otherwise be done. Despite the mathematical complexity of science done today, it is important for all people to understand the basic mathematical principles on which scientific evaluations are based, so they can better understand natural phenomena.