If you wiped any memory of maths lessons from your mind as soon as you left high school, chances are the thought of using maths in everyday life as an adult, turns your stomach a little.
But what if you were able to use simple maths to figure out your best online dating profile match? Or choose the shortest line in the supermarket?
According to mathematician Lily Serna, you absolutely can.
“Maths helps you analyse situations and make good and rational decisions,” Ms Serna explained.
“It’s a great way to see the world, it brings another perspective.”
Maths + dating = perfect match
But what perspective does maths really bring to the world?
Well, more than you may think — starting with the world of online dating.
“There’s an ocean of fish to potentially date,” Ms Serna said.
“How do you know when to stop looking and make a permanent decision?”
Enter something known as optimal stopping, a mathematical system helping you figure out the odds in a situation with numerous options.
“It’s a solution to a problem where you have lots of choice,” Ms Serna explained, using dating as the best example.
“You first estimate how big the population is — for example, you can estimate how many men or women you might meet before you’re a certain age.
“Optimal stopping says, for the first third of the quantity you choose, you simply look — go on dates, don’t commit to a life partner.
“Use that third as a base line.
“Then, the first person you see that ‘outperforms’ the third before, is the one to focus on.”
It sounds simple, but there are a couple of caveats.
Ms Serna said the maths only worked if you did not go backwards — like back to an ex, for example.
“It also doesn’t mean you’ll get the best partner, but it does give you the best chance,” she added. “Mathematically!”
The optimal stopping principle can also be used if you are in the market for buying a house or a car, or anything you have a range of options for.
Maths in the supermarket queue
People queue for all kinds of things, including durians in Bangkok. But how can you choose the quickest queue? (Reuters: Athit Perawongmetha)
Alongside optimal stopping, Ms Serna said there were many “friendly” equations, lessons and mathematical theories that could help you navigate life.
“Then there’s lots of maths done on queues, believe it or not,” Ms Serna said.
“If you think about banks and airports and establishments, which want to reduce queues and make more money, it makes sense.”
Ms Serna points out that, alongside maths, there are psychological elements in play when choosing a queue.
“People generally have a right-hand bias, and they might choose a certain queue as a natural bias. So that’s something to keep in mind,” she said.
“But there’s a lot of other research that says [you have to consider elements like] the people in the queue, the time people chat with the checkout person, the amount of groceries they’re buying.
“It’s not hard maths … it’s all about thinking about the problem in a different way.”
Ms Serna has two books, including her recent release, Curious. She has also appeared on the SBS program Letters and Numbers or, more recently, the ABC’s Catalyst.
Combined these make her one of the more-recognisable advocates for “women in STEM” — a responsibility and “privilege” she does not take lightly.
The STEM fields — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — are traditionally dominated by men, and a report commissioned by Male Champions of Change for STEM earlier this year found sexism and discrimination was widespread in STEM industries.
“I do have to remind myself to be a bit more confident in the way I talk, maybe be louder in meetings, work a little bit harder to be visible,” Ms Serna said.
“It’s not to say I feel like that all the time, but there are times I do just need to.
“I’ve had conversations with women in STEM who have experienced similar things, but the important thing is that things are improving.
“We are moving in the right direction, and the more that we talk about it the better it will become.”
The changing face of STEM
Indeed, last week’s Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, presented at Parliament House, show that tide is changing.
A record number of women received awards for their contributions to the science, research and teaching worlds, and fellow mathematician, Emeritus Professor Cheryl Praeger, took out the top gong.
“I would encourage any young people, girls and boys — if you’re interested in maths and science, to run for it,” Professor Praeger said at the time.
“There are so many exciting careers, and more and more problems will be coming up in the future which will need your expertise and commitment.
“Australia really needs you to help it through to a great future.”
Emeritus Professor Cheryl Praeger has made foundational contributions to several fields of mathematics (Supplied: Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science)
Professor Praeger, who once had an adviser suggest she pursue a different career after school because “girls didn’t do maths”, won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science for her contributions to the field of group theory.
Group theory is a branch of pure mathematics which deals with questions of symmetry, and influences how we keep our information secure when we communicate over the internet or with banks.
Other female winners were recognised for their work in pioneering new chemical imaging tools to observe healthy and diseased cells, and in the field of immunological memory.
The gravity of witnessing women being recognised for their work was not lost on Ms Serna.
“Certainly being in the audience and seeing woman after woman get awards was just fantastic,” she said.
“For me as a female in STEM it felt inspiring, and I was really proud to be there.
“It sends a positive message — there are some amazing women doing some great things.”
Ms Serna’s advice for younger women interested in pursing a career in maths, is to soak up as much knowledge as they can.
“Try to find someone who’s at the next stage,” she said.
“So if you’re in high school find a uni student, or even someone the grade above, who you admire and enjoys the subject.
“Find a mentor who can help you navigate the waters.”