The Mathematics Of The Holidays

Proved, why math is the best date for you.


It’s that time of the year again.

Fairy lights, holly, party favours: it’s holiday season, but we’re here with an interruption. Don’t worry yet, it’s still a celebration – we’ll be loving something we’ve hated most of our lives. December 22 – Happy National Mathematics Day. Who says we can’t invite math into the festivities?

Probably everybody who has ever hated math – and that seems to be a pretty sizable chunk of the population. Is it so, though? Mathematics, as a subject, is not even defined. Translated from Greek, all it means is knowledge. Are we really spreading hate over something we don’t really know?

Statistics show that we’re not. Contrary to popular belief; a mere 24% of the population hates math. Double, 48%, actually loves the subject. The rest are indifferent. It’s probably been explained by Hardy best: “most people are so frightened of the name of mathematics that they are ready, quite unaffectedly, to exaggerate their own mathematical stupidity.” Sounds familiar?

There you go then: math is humanity’s mistress, our secret love affair, something we can’t – and don’t – wish to give up, really. It’s been with us since the beginning of life – animals brushed with math when they recognised that 3 apples and 3 acorns have something in common. Prehistoric man began to record days, seasons, with tallies on bones. By 3,000 BC, the Egyptians had math as a crutch for finances and construction. By the 6th century BC, the Greeks had a system of study in place.

Hence, proved. You can come out of the closet today – it’s okay to love math, society has been approving for a very long time. Is the holiday season your excuse to push it to your new year’s resolutions? But we just invited math in – plus, as you’ll see, we’ll actually need math to celebrate.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly – 2,5 arrangement of leaves; here’s a Fibonacci sequence for you. More Fibonacci in the double set of spirals of the pinecones you hang on your Christmas tree. And your lovely golden tinsel star on the top – it’s likely to be a pentagrammic dipyramid, or if you’re more fancy, a great dodecicosacron.

Then there’s pie – we’ve got to give analysis, applied math, discrete mat, cartesian geometry, matric algebra, combinatorics, topology, and order theory each a slice – how do you split a pie into eight, using three strokes? More math. How much is each getting? Let’s bring in the other pi! Fun fact: the first three numbers, 3.14, read in reverse… gives you pie. Maybe you’re a bit more modern – choose pizza, over pie – say you have enough dough for a cylinder of radius ‘z’ and height ‘a’, you can make a pizza of volume, well, pi.zz.a.

Not convinced yet? Let’s get to business: we’re handing you your trump card. Numbers. Yes, they do work in your favour if you know how to; you can use math to get yourself winning streaks at Monopoly, Pac-Man, even tic-tac-toe and classic Christmas chess. Winning at chess, for example, is easier if you’ve gone through the data analysis of over 2.2 million master chess games. Or if you’re more badass and plan to hit the casinos this New Year’s, who says you can’t tweak the odds in your favour? Math can be the ace up your sleeve, your shady contact – trust us, you won’t need luck this time. Here’s an example: you’re likelier to win in Paris, not Vegas; the American roulette has double the zeroes, and double the long-term loss, than the European. (Disclaimer: these are expectation values; a math system might work a couple times, but sticking by it is a one way trip to bankruptcy.)

If you’re looking to kick back after hitting the jackpot – it’s a numbers game again. There’s math even in sleep! The length of non-REM and REM sleep periods in humans, and most mammals, follows an exponential distribution: the log of the probability of a period of a certain length is distributed linearly with the log of its length.

Moving on, let math be your date to that NYE party. Do you need your perfect outfit? You’ll need math to figure out the holiday sales. Or maybe you chose to economise this year – don’t worry, permute and combine to pick out from those thirteen shirts, five pairs of bottoms. Now that you’re here, perhaps you’d like a drink (although you shouldn’t: processing alcohol is actually harder on your brain than math is!) – and want to know if you can drive back next year? Math will take a look at the percentage alcohol by volume, the glasses you had, and decide for you.

It’s almost time – are you looking around at all the couples in the room, wondering if you’ll find the one this time? Well – assuming your soul mate is set at birth, and it’s love at first sight, mathematical estimates indicate that the odds of you finding your soul mate are only 0.010%. It’s okay – math will hold your hand as you do what it first taught you, count down from ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one…

Happy Mathematics Day to you too!

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