What can I do with mathematics?

Archaeologists faced with hundreds of thousands of pieces have turned to mathematicians to help reconstruct ancient artifacts, even when many pieces are missing.

Putting Together the Pieces

Fitting just-broken pieces together is hard enough, but imagine how difficult it is to do after thousands of years—and a few civilizations—have passed. Archaeologists faced with hundreds of thousands of pieces at a site have turned to mathematicians to help reassemble the fragments. The pieces are first digitally scanned; then software uses geometry, combinatorics, and statistics to reconstruct ancient artifacts, even when many pieces are missing.

Mathematics is also used in other new approaches to archaeology and paleontology: in the precise mapping of buried shipwrecks and the recreation of the movement of dinosaurs. In these cases and others, progress, perhaps paradoxically, actually brings us closer to understanding the past.Whether it’s refining a basic technique like triangulation or applying an involved subject such as partial differential equations, mathematics researchers are breaking new ground to uncover antiquity’s secrets.

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“Automatic Archaeology,” Haim Watzman, Nature,
January 8, 2004.

Article © AMS Mathematical Moments program

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While the main motivation to choose math as a major should stem from a combination of keen interest and high ability in math, students are naturally concerned about the opportunities available to a mathematics major or a mathematics teaching major after graduation. At this time, the math major appears to be in a better position than many other majors for employment in business, industry, government agencies, and teaching. The prospects are also good for well-qualified students to obtain support for graduate studies in either mathematics or mathematics education. Also a major in mathematics is excellent preparation for further study in many other fields.

In order to help you clarify your thoughts on what you want to get out of your collegiate experience as a math major, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Why do I like mathematics? What is it about math that attracts me to majoring in mathematics?
  • What type of mathematics do I like? Do I like the computational aspect? The rigor and logic? The problem solving experience? The theoretical aspect? Which content areas interest me?
  • What do I want to do for a career? Do I want to teach, or do I want pursue other avenues? If you want to teach, then:
    • what age group(s) do you want to teach? PreK, 1-6, 6-9, 9-12, college?
    • do you want to teach just mathematics, or do you want to have the flexibility to teach other fields as well?
  • If you are not interested in a career in teaching, then: are you interested in a career in business, industry, government, nonprofits, other alternatives?
  • How much education do I want to complete? Bachelors, Masters, or Ph.D.? Do I want to enter the work force right after graduation with the option to pursue graduate work later?
  • What do I need to do in order to further my career prospects?
  • What should I be doing academically to further my goals? Should I pick up a minor in another area? Should I try to double major?
  • What extracurriculars should I become involved in to further my goals? For example, should I get involved with the math club? Should I participate in the MCM Modeling Competition?
  • What types of work experience should I try to get to further my goals? Should I consider volunteer work experiences such as tutoring? Should I consider internships?
  • What organizations should I become involved in? What conferences or meetings might it be helpful to attend?


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