I recently found out that someone is being taught the programming language Python to learn math. This seems quite absurd, and I could have sworn I had heard an analogy about something like this, but couldn't quite remember it.

  • I'm not sure it's that absurd! Nothing teaches math like having a practical application for it. But it certainly shouldn't be the only way to present the material. Sep 14, 2011 at 6:55
  • 4
    IMO that's not absurd at all. In higher maths, it is helpful to know a scripting language or two to be able to automate lots of the tedious works that isn't directly relevant to whatever you're currently doing or to find solutions graphically/numerically/brute-forcely, which requires a lot of iterations. The language that is most often used for this purpose is Mathematica, but any language will do.
    – Lie Ryan
    Sep 14, 2011 at 7:08
  • Agreed here - it's not absurd at all - the practical application makes it worth it. I'll think of analogies though.
    – Nick Otime
    Sep 14, 2011 at 7:32
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    Is learning Python to learn maths any sillier than inventing the computer just to decide the Entscheidungsproblem?
    – mgb
    Sep 14, 2011 at 17:56

5 Answers 5


Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut is rather more general, but seems to fit what you’re asking for. It’s a common analogy for “doing something more complicated than necessary to accomplish something comparatively simple”.

(On the other hand, I’m not sure whether this situation really is an example. If the maths in question is pretty simple, then it could be. But for some areas of maths, having a good scripting language to play with examples could be very helpful indeed, especially if the person has prior programming experience and so can learn Python quite easily.)


Trying to "run before you walk"?


try an April Fool Result:

An AFR is an April Fool Result: a proof of a simple mathematical fact using much harder mathematics than needed. It is using sledge hammer to break a toothpick, or a blowtorch to light a candle.

You can find examples/analogies at this MathOverflow thread "Awfully sophisticated proof for simple facts":

The number one analogy for this would be, to quote Greg Kupberg:

"Yes, Fermat's Last Theorem is an important generalization of the fact that 2 ^ (1/n) is irrational. :-)"

here's also an nice example from Carl Linderholm's Mathematics Made Difficult (via Wikipedia):

As an example, the proof that two is a prime number starts: It is easily seen that the only numbers between 0 and 2, including 0 but excluding 2, are 0 and 1. Thus the remainder left by any number on division by 2 is either 0 or 1. Hence the quotient ring Z/2Z, where 2Z is the ideal in Z generated by 2, has only the elements [0] and [1], where these are the images of 0 and 1 under the canonical quotient map. Since [1] must be the unit of this ring, every element of this ring except [0] is a unit, and the ring is a field ...


Not exactly what you're looking for, but Albert Einstein once said "Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything one learned in school."

I don't know what particular math is being taught, but take the example of learning calculus by using a machine to do the derivatives and integrals. The reason high schools and colleges push calculus is not because it is useful in every day life, it is because learning calculus helps train (and test) your mind to 'think mathematically'. The student learns how to get the work done with a machine, but once he forgets there is nothing left.


Free to Bernard Shaw and applicable to above:

“He who can teach math, does. He who cannot, teaches Python.

  • This doesn’t answer the question, and misunderstands Shaw’s epigram.
    – PLL
    Sep 14, 2011 at 18:06

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