What can I do with mathematics?

Advanced digital imaging techniques using statistics and linear algebra have revealed Archimedes' previously unknown discoveries.

Restoring Genius

Archimedes was one of the most brilliant people ever, on a par with Einstein and Newton. Yet very little of what he wrote still exists because of the passage of time, and because many copies of his works were erased and the cleaned pages were used again. One of those written-over works (called a palimpsest) has resurfaced, and advanced digital imaging techniques using statistics and linear algebra have revealed his previously unknown discoveries in combinatorics and calculus. This leads to a question that would stump even Archimedes: How much further would mathematics and science have progressed had these discoveries not been erased?

One of the most dramatic revelations of Archimedes’ work was done using X-ray fluorescence. A painting, forged in the 1940s by one of the book’s former owners, obscured the original text, but X-rays penetrated the painting and highlighted the iron in the ancient ink, revealing a page of Archimedes’ treatise The Method of Mechanical Theorems. The entire process of uncovering this and his other ideas is made possible by modern mathematics and physics, which are built on his discoveries and techniques. This completion of a circle of progress is entirely appropriate since one of Archimedes’ accomplishments that wasn’t lost is his approximation of π.

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The Archimedes Codex, Reviel Netz and William Noel, 2007.

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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