Never Good at Math
In The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, author Jack Lynch describes the reaction of strangers when they learn of his vocation:
When I’m introduced at a party as an English professor, people immediately turn apologetic about their grammar and shuffle uncomfortably, fearful of offending me and embarassing themselves. No one feels compelled to confess to engineers that they never got the knack of building bridges, or to doctors that they don’t understand the lymphatic system — but nearly everyone feels a strange obligation to come clean to someone who is supposed to be an expert in “grammar.”
This passage struck me, because I often get a similar reaction when people learn that I’m a math professional. I cannot begin to count the number of times I’ve heard a taxi driver, a real estate agent, a waiter, a waitress, a flight attendant, and even a local newscaster utter the following line:
Math folks often get upset by this statement. I often hear them lament, “Illiterate people would never tell you that they can’t read, but no one has a problem telling you that they’re not good at math.”
That’s a bad analogy. When someone claims to be bad at math, what they usually mean is that they never figured out how to factor a trinomial in Algebra I or that they were tripped up by two-column proofs in Geometry. While I don’t have data to prove it, I suspect that they are able to count, and I would further guess that they have little trouble with the four basic operations. So while you may hear someone admit, “I was never very good at math,” you will likely never hear, “I can’t count.”
By comparison, when someone admits, “I can’t read,” they are admitting that they never acquired the most basic skill associated with letters and words. Reading is the linguistic equivalent of counting. Were it the case that someone was unable to count, she would likely be as embarrassed about it as an illiterate person would be about her inability to read.
Ever the cynic, when someone tells me, “I was never very good at math,” my first thought is usually, “Your teachers were not very good at teaching math.” Every student has the ability to shine mathematically, but it usually takes a teacher who is willing to pull back the curtain and show them what we mathy folks already know — that the beauty of mathematics lies far beyond rote computation, in a realm where exploration, failure and epiphany provide an infinity of pleasure.
Stepping down from my soapbox, here is a passage about the beauty of mathematics from Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams:
The things by which our emotions can be moved — the shape of a flower or a Grecian urn, the way a baby grows, the way the wind brushes across your face, the way clouds move, their shapes, the way light dances on the water, or daffodils flutter in the breeze, the way in which the person you love moves their head, the way their hair follows that movement, the curve described by the dying fall of the last chord of a piece of music — all these things can be described by the complex flow of numbers.
That’s not a reduction of it, that’s the beauty of it.
Ask the poet (Keats) who said that what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.
He might also have said that what the hand seizes as a ball must be truth, but he didn’t, because he was a poet and preferred loafing about under trees with a bottle of laudanum and a notebook to playing cricket, but it would have been equally true.