Mathematicians and statisticians, perhaps with a sprinkle of programming and network science, will be as foundational to the modern workplace as numeracy was a century ago and literacy before that.
When I decided to go back to school my father explained to me that all disciplines see their heyday. As a society we are seemingly capable of focusing on only one major field at a time. So recently Biologists, Chemists and Computer Scientists have had their success. But it’s been a long time since Mathematicians have held center stage. In fact, mathematicians have been waiting quite some time to hold the imagination of the public. I can say this because whenever I told someone I was getting a PhD in Math, the first assumption was that I was going to teach. Because math isn’t, you know, good for anything useful. Not on it’s own. Maybe if you add some engineering or chemistry- but not on it’s own! But we, the math nerds, have had some recent success.
The housing market crashed, after years of statisticians and mathematicians wondering how we could continue to support bad investment loans. So good job to the mathematicians for noticing that something wasn’t right. But we didn’t have the clout back then to make a difference. Since then we’ve had other famous moments.
Target statistician Andrew Pole famously determined how to identify pregnant women. And lets not forget PRISM and the NSA who hire huge teams of mathematicians. There is some difficulty with working in a field which wields a new tool. Just as staring at the sun took Galileo’s eyesight and the development of the nuclear bomb took the lives of many physicists, Big Data can be used in dangerous ways. But the data will continue to collect in dark musty closets and hard drives. Data which, when one knows the magic words, can open doors to exciting discovery.
Who knows the magic words? Statisticians and Mathematicians. We know the words to unlock the secrets of interlinked data. Mathematicians, Statisticians, and a few others with the knack can dig through the tables and columns to create useful, profitable, and valuable insight. “Every great research team has a mathematician,” I was once told. This may not have been true several decades ago. But now, when everything is data, the long overlooked mathematicians may have an opportunity to see the spotlight of societies gaze.The quote at the top of this article comes from the book Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier. I recommend it! It’s good!
But, now that mathematicians may be standing in the spotlight, what will we do with the attention when we are so famous for being social rejects? I hope that we’ll take the opportunity to build a new stereotype. And that’s an exciting idea.