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College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Student Connects Math and Languages

For many people, mathematics and a foreign language such as Spanish are two very different fields. However, for University of Mississippi senior Reed Gilbow of Cleveland, MS, they have a common connection.

Majoring in math, physics and Spanish with a minor in chemistry, Gilbow has a unique take on how the study of these disciplines is similar. “Sure, math can be a bunch of numbers and equations, but it is more broadly about logic and rational thinking,” he said. “Like a language, it has a unique vocabulary. In that sense, learning Spanish has been very much akin to mathematics.”

Gilbow’s mathematical thesis subject, generalized Boolean algebra, may contribute to his foreign language studies, too. Gilbow’s advisor and professor of mathematics, Gerald Buskes, sees the connection. “Boolean algebras were invented by Boole to provide a language of algebra for all of human thought,” Buskes said. “The mathematical idea invented as a model language might still have some weak connection with each and every language.”

Gilbow plans to return to UM after graduating in May with a degree in mathematics for a second degree in Spanish and a third in physics. His ultimate plan is to attend medical school.  The UM math department is fully supportive of Gilbow’s other academic pursuits. “Mathematics is useless if it is not communicated with others,” Gilbow said. “The math department has always encouraged me to learn Spanish because it allows me to communicate with a greater number of people.”

“From my perspective as a linguist, there is a clear connection: math and also music are like language; they all utilize symbols for the expression of ideas, although most people don’t think of it this way, “said Donald Dyer, professor and chair of Modern Languages. “At their core, all three disciplines attach meaning to the symbols, whatever form they may take (sounds in language, for example), and then arrange these symbols into higher systems that are used for the communication of ideas. In language, these ideas take the form of information. I will leave it to the mathematicians and musicians to explain what that means for their disciplines, although I suspect for the former it means trying to explain the physical world and for the latter it means communicating one’s artistry and emotions.”