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Expressing Creativity through Mathematics
After his visit to a Shell Research Laboratory, my high school teacher in math told us in class that he was so happy with his education, because mathematics had helped him to understand the explanations and demonstrations that had been given by the Shell researchers. He said, "If you master mathematics then you can understand everything." That was certainly an exaggeration, but it nevertheless sounded like a golden message. Since I definitely wanted to have a better understanding of what was going on around me, mathematics seemed the obvious way to go. Also, if it was not much beyond high school math, then it was pretty easy in addition. What could one wish more? So I enrolled in every advanced math class offered in our high school. Pretty soon I discovered that mathematics was much more than a set of principles that helped one to solve intellectual riddles. It was not a finished system that one could aim to master after some limited time, but it was really a way of thinking, a means of expressing creativity: endless, an old established science, but still fresh and with undiscovered green meadows, nearby and far away.
I also learned that mathematics was more than merely an intellectual activity: it was a necessary tool for getting a grip on all sorts of problems in science and engineering. Without mathematics there is no progress. However, mathematics could also show its nasty face during periods in which problems that seemed so simple at first sight refused to be solved for a long time. Every math student will recognize these periods of frustration and helplessness.
My first opportunity to use math outside the academic world was in my part time job with United parcel Service. It was an eye-opener for me in that mathematical techniques, in combination with computers, could be used for solving very complicated real-life problems, such as predicting and controlling the continuos flow of 300 million packages per day. I was deeply impressed by the numerical masterpieces of Jim Gilkinson and Dick Marga, the project managers. They led the way in showing how one could overcome some serious limitations of computers for solving linear systems of equations.
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