Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"Theoretical Mathematics" > "Pure Mathematics"

I am going to rant briefly. :)

The term "pure mathematics" is incredibly obnoxious. It is highly charged, as it suggests a superiority over applied mathematics with which I (and many others) beg to differ. Of course, it is better than the term "unadulterated mathematics" that I once saw on a blog, but that isn't exactly a difficult lower bound to surpass.

A far better---not only less charged but also considerably more accurate---substitute for the term "pure" mathematics is theoretical mathematics. This would also be consistent with other fields: Nobody in their right mind would use the terms "pure chemistry", "pure physics", "pure biology", "pure computer science", etc. This terminological denigration of other areas of a discipline seems to be the exclusive domain of mathematics. (Please let me know of any other examples if you're aware of them.)

There are relevant differences to note. For example, physics that is not "applied physics" is still done in the laboratory. But from the perspective of what research is done and the goals thereof, the term "theoretical mathematics" is rather consistent with similar terminology in other fields. The term "pure" mathematics needs to go.


Jon said...

I am pretty sure that Caltech had an Applied Chemistry degree (ACh) back in the 30s/40s. Perhaps as a discipline matures these artificial distinctions of pure/applied go away. Or perhaps a field becomes Balkanized so you get theoretical/physical/analytical/inorganic/organic/synthetic/bio-/geo-/astro-/...

Mason said...

I think "applied chemistry" is a defensible term, though it is admittedly less common than (say) "applied physics". But I will argue vehemently that a term like "pure chemistry" does not make any sense.