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Life as Math: Break Your Problem Into Pieces
By   Shlomo Maital

   How do you solve real-world problems? Hard ones?   Not, say, partial differential equations…. But life problems, relationships, dilemmas, work, career, kids.

   Let’s turn to a new and wonderful book by Cornell University mathematician Steven Strogatz *.   His book is about calculus. Remember your college course Calculus 101? One you may have struggled with? Can you believe calculus can solve real-world problems, not just math problems?

     Start with differential calculus and derivatives. This technique takes a hard problem and breaks it down into very very small pieces. Try the same with life. Problem? Insoluble? Break it down. Take it apart. Use the method of seven why’s… why?, response, why?, response, until you get down to the infinitely small level..and the core of the problem.

     Next take integral calculus. Start small and build it up. Build the big picture. Take your seven why’s…   zoom out, then put the pieces together and ‘integrate’….add it all up.

        Strogatz shows how a geneticist combined with a mathematical expert to crack the HIV    problem. Drugs were developed to combat HIV and keep it from becoming AIDS. But there was a dilemma. Using the drugs prematurely might cause the body to develop immunity and endanger the patient. The mathematician plotted the curve of HIV virus in the body, over time, and how the body destroyed the virus…. And came up with the strategy, eventually, of the HIV cocktail – the combination of three drugs that has proved so effective and life-saving. This was done, using calculus, plotting the computing the curve of HIV virus ‘kills’ by the body’s immune system over time.

     Bottom line — tackle problems like a calculus expert. Break them down. Take a small piece. Work on it.   Understand the whole problem by understanding a small part of it.

* Steven Strogatz. Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe. 384 pages. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2019.

 

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Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
September 2019
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