What does it take to be a top 1% mathematical mind?
Here’s a question I’ve asked my kids and done some thinking about:
Suppose we gave everyone in the world a reliable test of mathematical ability. What sort of things do you think you’d have to have mastered in order to score in the top 1% on that test? Differential Geometery? Graph theory? Multivariable calculus?
Let’s see. 1% of 7 billion is 70 million. What sort of math do 70 million people on this earth know, that the rest of the world doesn’t know?
Here are some other thoughts and stats:
- about 2.7 billion, or 40% of the world’s population live on less than $2 a day. My guess is that most, if not all of these people suffer from little or no education, and spend most of their lives eeking out basic survival needs, and because of this, I doubt learning math really figures prominently in their lives, sadly. It is tragic that so many people suffer in these conditions in today’s age.
- In the US, one of the highest developed country in the world, 15% of adults do not graduate from high school, this probably means they don’t master much more than basic arithmetic. Again, another tragic statistic. If we generalize this statistic to the be representative of the richest 1 billion, then we can say 150 million more adults haven’t mastered more than basic arithmetic.
- So, by this admittedly shaky logic, we’re close to saying mastering pre-algebra would easily put you in the top half of mathematical minds in the world.
- The college board reports that 300,000 students take an AP calculus exam. Around 1.8 million students go on to 2-4 year colleges every year, so we can roughly estimate the number of high school graduates taking calculus as around 16%. If 85% of adults graduate high school, and only 16% of those take take calculus, then 13% of adults in the developed world study calculus. And if this number is representative of the richest billion of the population (1/7 of the world), then taking calculus in high school puts you somewhere in the top 2% in terms of math understanding of the world’s population.
Now this is very sketchy, and my numbers are likely wrong, but I think there’s a decent argument to be made that if you’re studying algebra in the 8th or 9th grade, and on track to take calculus in high school, you are quite probably in the top few percent in terms of mathematical knowledge in the whole world. Of course, most of this is due to the innumeracy that plagues our country and others. But this gets me thinking—I have a number of students in 9th grade, who are familiar with sine, cosine, all sorts of geometric theorems, and solving equations, and yet they constantly say “I’m bad at math.” This is despite the fact that evidence would seem to indicate they are on track to be part of the top few percent of mathematical minds in the world.
Would this perspective help them to reframe their own view of their ability?
And if you are a wiser mathematical mind that me and/or you have access to better data, please do correct me.