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Do I need maths?

It can be easy to think that you only need math to do your algebra or geometry homework, or if you work as an engineer. But in fact, mathematics appears everywhere – even in the soap bubbles in the kitchen sink.

An article for children by Dr. Hortensia Soto

While washing dishes when I was 13, I noticed that the soap bubbles formed small 3D polygons, packed together like a honeycomb, but not all of these shapes were perfectly round. Why did some of the bubbles look like hexagons? Why were others shaped like squares filled with air? Why didn’t I see any star bubbles or spike bubbles?

A densely packed collection of rainbow-colored hexagonal bubbles on a dark background
Mathematics helps explain the shapes of the bubbles and why they naturally clump together without any gaps. Adrienne Bresnahan/Moment via Getty Images

When I learned that math could help answer these questions, I thought that was so cool! Now, as a math professor who  studies how people learn math through play  , I understand why  bubbles are naturally lazy  . I even  looked into the math behind  why I was only seeing some shapes in dish soap.

Besides helping to explain the behavior of bubbles and other curious facts of nature, math is probably a part of many of your daily activities, along with the technology you like and even the inner workings of your brain. Doing math is not just about calculating, memorizing, solving an equation, or solving word problems on your own. It’s really about creative problem solving and logical thinking with other people.

Mathematics in everyday life

Many topics you learn in elementary school—such as fractions, percentages, and measurements—are useful in everyday life.

For example, if you want to build a fence around your house,  paint your walls a new color or design  , or  sew a new outfit or quilt  , all these activities require knowledge of measurement and scaling. More complex construction projects, such as  building a treehouse  , require a lot of mathematical problem-solving skills.

After laying out the plans for one of these projects, you need to buy all the materials. Percentages—which are special types of fractions—are especially important to understand when managing money. Understanding percentages can help you  plan your money  and  increase your net worth  .

Besides budgeting, you might find yourself using percentages when baking a double batch of brownies, figuring out how much medicine to take when you’re sick, or  figuring out the weather forecast  .

Your favorite technology needs math

Math is an essential tool that animators use to make movies.

Pixar artists use math to make movies like “Elemental.”

Studios like Pixar  rely on  ideas from geometry  to bring characters like Ember from “Elemental” to life. With an understanding of geometric transformations such as reflections, rotations, and translations, you can  use your computer  to make your own animations.

Coordinate systems that are fundamental to geometry appear in video games such as Minecraft. The 2D Minecraft world uses  a 2D coordinate system  – with an x-axis and a y-axis – where you can move north, south, east or west. In the 3D Minecraft world, there is also a z-axis that allows you to move up and down. Middle and high school teachers can even  use Minecraft  to help students learn math concepts.

Many high-paying jobs  use math  , especially  probabilities  —again, fractions. Understanding probability helps doctors determine how effective medical treatments are, informs coaches about  ways their teams can improve,  and helps  cryptographers  keep private information secret—like your email password or ATM PIN. Cryptography combines probability with number theory to create  secret codes  that are difficult to crack.

Math helps your brain

Math can have a big impact on your inner life as well. You can use math activities to train your brain the same way you would train your body for sports. Doing math helps  your brain become flexible  so you can better handle new tasks and ideas of all kinds.

Even doing things that don’t look like your math homework, like crosswords, word searches, and board games like  Set  and  Blokus  , are deeply mathematical activities that  help your brain get stronger  . This type of mental training helps the brain pay attention and solve problems and improves memory. A strong working memory supports brain functions that reduce the risk of  Alzheimer’s disease and dementia  .

Having a stronger, more flexible brain also supports  quantitative literacy  , which can help you understand the graphs that appear in the media, critically reflect on the news, and understand health and financial information.

Math can even help you  outsmart artificial intelligence  . With the rise of AI,  it’s important  to be able to think creatively, reason logically, and make connections between concepts—whether they’re mathematical or not. Puzzling a difficult math problem nurtures these skills, even if you don’t get the answer right away.

A woman leans over a table to help one of several small children build a cube structure out of small colored balls and sticks.
Hortensia Soto demonstrates the hidden math of soap bubbles as part of Cafecito con Matemáticas organized by Liz Arnold and Jocelyn Rios at Colorado State University. Liz Arnold  ,  CC BY-ND

It’s important to remember that doing math doesn’t require you to be fast or get the right answer right away. In fact, you can learn a lot by  getting the answer wrong  . Working with other people can also help you make sure you really understand the problem and builds  communication and teamwork skills  .

Math is much more than memorizing multiplication tables and completing sets of homework problems. So the next time you sit back to watch your favorite cartoon or start saving up for a fancy new tech gadget, hopefully you’ll appreciate how math is woven into so many parts of life.