Practical uses of mathematics

Tim Prentice – BSc (Chemistry, Computer Science), NZCE Int (Engineering)

Whilst I enjoyed mathematics in school, it wasn’t until I could see the application in real world scenarios that I started to fully appreciate it. Learning about second derivatives to calculate the curvature of car panels or using the wavelength of sound and speaker dimensions to calculate the ideal speaker box were things I would never think of at school. Until I did a University Engineering Mathematics paper that is. I would’ve been much more interested in mathematics if I knew its application from an earlier date.

My career was to eventually fall into computer software development. Where maths and logic takes a crucial role between what is good written software and what is not.

Without an understanding of maths some software algorithms take literally days compared to some which take a split second. A simple example is summing prime numbers up to several million. A good algorithm knows that all numbers are either divisible by prime numbers or are prime themselves, and that you don’t need to go beyond the square root of a number to know if it’s prime. Primes can be common place in encryption algorithms, and search algorithms too are very important.

Then there is the mathematical understanding of the space in which you are developing. Companies such as TV Broadcasters need to keep in mind the restricted amount of space and memory on their set top box when you are, say watching sports. Without it the set top box might freeze up and you could miss your sports programme and the advertisers won’t be happy about that! The programmers here need to think about recycling used objects, using the smallest objects and the fastest least intense algorithms, and how to mathematically merge multiple TV streams so you get the best picture quality.

It’s a learning experience. But perhaps the most challenging of all is how to express complex mathematical algorithms in a robust concise way that anyone can understand it. That is truly is an art and takes many, many years to perfect.