1. Henly, Susan J. PhD, RN

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Let's be honest. Science, no matter the specific content, is completely entangled with mathematics. And we are selling ourselves and our science short by not facing this fact. Going forward, we should aim to profit from the increased value of a nursing science bolstered by mathematics.


Galileo is credited with being the first to see mathematics as the "language of science." Convinced of the need for quantification, Lord Kelvin later argued that, "when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and an unsatisfactory kind: It may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science." Nightingale continued this tradition, using data and statistics with creativity and religious intensity to understand and improve health. Why mathematics is so useful to science may be baffling, but there is little arguing about its "unreasonable effectiveness" for description, prediction, and explanation (Wigner, 1960).


In practice, astute nurses use data in flow sheets to discern patterns of health over time, to understand the dynamics of diverse health phenomena, and to positively control health trajectories through therapeutic nursing actions (Henly, Wyman, & Findorff, 2011). For example, the circulatory system continuously adapts to changing demands in local requirements for oxygen and nutrients, and the system adaptations reveal themselves in covarying trajectories of pulse, respiration, blood pressure, and treatments. In another example, attributes of dyadic communication (such as occurs between a nurse and a patient) unfold in real time and appear to be self-regulating and coupled. In both instances, system adaptation may be associated with important outcomes of the process. Stark differences in the outward appearance of these situations belie underlying similarities in the form of system self-regulation and internal dynamics that can be understood-using models based on differential equations (Boker & Laurenceau, 2007; National Research Council, 2005, pp. 84-85). Who knew? Without deliberate attention to integration of mathematics into our science, we will not. And the nursing knowledge we generate will be impoverished for our failing to do so.


The release of the NINR "Bringing Science to Life" strategic plan (National Institute of Nursing Research, 2011) gave tangible expression to the long-standing aspiration to incorporate biology into the bio-psycho-social trifecta of nursing research. The conceptual embrace is easy in a discipline that has long valued the fundamental importance of biology. But biology is increasingly mathematical (National Research Council, 2005). Effective incorporation of the 21st century biology into the nursing science framework requires realistic appraisal of our readiness to do so. Garnering the shared scholarly will to incorporate the requisite mathematics into the fabric of our scientific lives is essential, because mathematics is an investment that we need to make.



Susan J. Henly, PhD, RN


Associate Editor




Boker S. M., Laurenceau J. P. (2007). Coupled dynamics and mutually adaptive context. In Little T. D., Bovaird J. A., Card N. A. (Eds.), Modeling contextual effects in longitudinal studies (pp. 299-324). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. [Context Link]


Henly S. J., Wyman J. F., Findorff M. J. (2011). Health and illness over time: The trajectory perspective in nursing science. Nursing Research, 60 (3 Suppl.), S5-S14. [Context Link]


National Institute of Nursing Research. (2011). Bringing science to life: NINR strategic plan. Bethesda, MD: NIH. [Context Link]


National Research Council. (2005). Mathematics and 21st century biology. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Retrieved from[Context Link]


Wigner E. P. (1960). The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences. Communications on Pure and Applied Mathematics, 13, 1-14. [Context Link]