Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | December 28, 2010

The real world consists of what *matters*

A brilliant formulation from David Pierce:

The real world consists of what *matters*. It is interesting that the verb “matter” occurs naturally here, since it is derived from the noun that is used for what the “real world”—the physical world—is supposedly made of. But if we ask, “What’s the matter with Fatma?” we may be asking about a physical ailment, or we may be asking about an *idea* that is causing Fatma to behave strangely. Ideas matter.

The whole point of education is to make things real for students, things that were not real for them before. [Things like fractions, for example.]  I recall an example in a letter in the Notices of the AMS, some time in the 1990s.

Calculus students worried that on Problem X, their answer was 0.5, but the book’s answer was 1/2.

“But they are the same thing!” says the teacher.

The students then use a calculator to divide 1 by 2, getting the answer 0.5. “Oh” they say.

Fractions are not real for those students.


  1. the phrase ‘whats the matter with fatma’ seems interesting from linguistic point of view. in one sense fatma is a noun’ i guess (a condition or state of existence—eg whats wrong with gods, or devils, or that god or devil) versus what is wrong with that god or devil (whats got into her, or him).
    at a glance i tend also to think this sort of (say ‘beyesian’) issue suggests nowadays there is no difference between general problem solving and math skills (unless one takes a strict view that computer science/algorithms/’finite math/donald knuth etc are not part of math)

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