The (real) reason why chemists need mathematics

One of the most common questions (and points of contention) that arises in discussions of any advanced chemistry curriculum is: why do chemists need so much training in mathematics? People on the ‘pro’ side of the discussion usually point to examples, saying “Quantum chemistry is applied mathematics!” or “How can you do thermodynamics or chemical kinetics without knowing some calculus?” But these arguments tend not to resonate with opponents. While it is true that mathematics is the base language of chemistry — indeed, the language of all science — it is not always clear that math plays a major role in the life of the everyday chemist. One can be forgiven for thinking that operating scientific instruments or mixing chemicals requires very little aptitude in higher mathematics… you just follow the standard operating procedure, right?! Well, yes. That is true. Sort of. But consider this: who creates the standard operating procedure? What happens when (not if, when!) things go wrong in the lab? These situations require clear, logical thought. This is really where training in mathematics pays off.

Mathematics is our framework for abstraction and logic. Math is difficult because it “rewires” our thought process and allows us to address concepts that are not intuitive. While it is true that not every chemist will use formal mathematics daily, we must all think critically. Logic and abstraction underpins every facet of chemistry. When viewed from this perspective, it is clear why formal training in mathematics is a necessity for chemists.