Mathematics is made of 50 percent formulas, 50 percent proofs, and 50 percent imagination.
The following problem can be solved either the easy way or the hard way.
Two trains 200 miles apart are moving toward each other; each one is going at a speed of 50 miles per hour. A fly starting on the front of one of them flies back and forth between them at a rate of 75 miles per hour. It does this until the trains collide and crush the fly to death. What is the total distance the fly has flown?
The fly actually hits each train an infinite number of times before it gets crushed, and one could solve the problem the hard way with pencil and paper by summing an infinite series of distances. The easy way is as follows: Since the trains are 200 miles apart and each train is going 50 miles an hour, it takes 2 hours for the trains to collide. Therefore the fly was flying for two hours. Since the fly was flying at a rate of 75 miles per hour, the fly must have flown 150 miles. That's all there is to it.
When this problem was posed to John von Neumann, he immediately replied, "150 miles."
"It is very strange," said the poser, "but nearly everyone tries to sum the infinite series."
"What do you mean, strange?" asked Von Neumann. "That's how I did it!"
In his lecture, ** formulated a theorem and said: "The proof is obvious". Then he thought for a minute, left the lecture room, returned after 15 minutes and happily concluded: "Indeed, it is obvious!"
** meaning he, or rather the teacher.
That is a funny story. Von Neumann was a great genius. He was also a prodigious mental calculator.
In mathematics, you don't understand things. You just get used to them.
I agree with you regarding the satisfaction and importance of actually computing some numbers. I can't tell you how often I see time and money wasted because someone didn't bother to run the numbers.