17 equations that changed the world

I’m sure you’re wondering how there could possibly be 17 equations that changed the world — and what those equations might be. According to Ian Stewart by way of kottke.org, these are the 17:

So what do we think of this list? And what do we think of Kottke’s observations:

I love how as time progresses, the equations get more complicated and difficult for the layperson to read (much less understand) and then Boltzmann and Einstein are like, boom!, entropy is increasing and energy is proportional to mass, suckas!

Let’s take a look. From the perspective of a high-school math teacher, the first things I want to know are which equations will be familiar to all high-school students, which ones will be familiar only to those who have taken honors courses, and which will be familiar to nobody who has not (yet) studied college-level math. The answers might be distressing, although no one could really expect that a lot of high-school math has changed the world. So…here’s what I claim:

  • 2 equations (#1 and 2) are familiar to all high-school students.
  • 6 more equations (#3–7, 16) are familiar to high-school students who have taken honors-level courses.
  • The remaining nine are unfamiliar to those who have not (yet) studied college-level math. Actually, all will have heard of #13, but I don’t know how many students have the faintest idea what it means.

I’m heavily biased, of course, by the Weston curriculum — not to mention the fact that some of these equations are taught in physics classes, not math classes. I guess I’d better check with a physics teacher. (By the way, they aren’t all equations…but who’s counting?)



Categories: Books, Math