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Commentary: Math has real-world applications, implications

“Why do we have to memorize these equations?” “When will we use this in real life?” “Is this really important?”

These phrases are commonly heard in math classrooms across the country.

What students don’t really know is how math has been used throughout history in life-or-death situations.

Florence Nightingale is best recognized for tending to wounded soldiers during the Crimean War. She is not well known for her contributions to the math world.

During the first winter when Nightingale was nursing soldiers, more than 4,000 soldiers died.

Using statistics, Nightingale was able to conclude that many more soldiers died from simple diseases like cholera than from battle wounds.

Cholera is spread through water and food that is polluted with human feces. The facilities in which the soldiers stayed were unbelievably dirty; they had no regulations regarding hand-washing and sewage maintenance.

Nightingale brought about awareness of the lack of sanitation in the soldiers’ facilities. About six months after Nightingale arrived, the Sanitary Commission cleaned up its act.

As a result, the mortality rate of the soldiers went from 42 percent to 2 percent.

Insight and forward thinking made it possible for Nightingale to determine the real cause of death.

Today, she is known for popularizing the use of pie charts. Sometimes they are referred to as Nightingale Rose Diagrams.

The ancient Egyptians used math to create the first calendar. Using observations from the stars and moon, they were able to conclude that a year was 365 days (12 months each with 30 days, plus 5 days added at the end of the year).

Why did the Egyptians need a calendar? They needed to keep track of when the Nile River was going to flood. When the Nile flooded, nearby crops would be nourished by the mineral-rich soil in the river, allowing the Egyptians to harvest their crops.

Without the calendar, the Egyptians would not know when the next harvest would be. Without the knowledge of an upcoming harvest, the Egyptians would not know when they could eat. Without food, the Egyptians would die.

Nightingale and the Egyptians both used math and observations to draw conclusions about life-and-death situations.

So the next time you feel the urge to argue to the teacher that the Pythagorean Theorem is “not necessary to know for real life,” stop to consider the fact that math is not just important – it can actually save lives.

Elise Yu is a freshman at Williamsville East High School.

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