## Things I Learned on a Boston Duck Tour

ConDUCKtor Dirty Waters

Dirty Waters led our Boston Duck Tour yesterday and told us a little about himself:

I’m wicked smaht. In fact, I was valedictorian of my high school. Of course, I was homeschooled… but my mom says it still counts.

Dirty was a veritable fountain of math-related trivia. For instance, he told us that the movie Good Will Hunting, in which Matt Damon roams the halls of Ford Building at MIT solving difficult math problems, wasn’t actually filmed at MIT. Rather,

The hallway scenes were filmed at Beacon Hill Community College… and let’s be honest, anyone can answer the math questions that are asked there.

Incidentally, the math problem that Damon solved involved drawing all the homeomorphically irreducible trees of degree 10. While I don’t know how well the typical BHCC student might react to this problem, I do know that my seven-year-old sons were able to solve it — once I helped them understand what a homeomorphically irreducible tree was.

Irreducible Tree

We also learned the following non-math trivia about Paul Revere:

• Paul Revere didn’t actually make it to Concord. He was captured by the Redcoats and sang like a songbird — he divulged the entirety of the colonists’ plans.
• He didn’t yell, “The British are coming! The British are coming!” That would have made no sense. At the time of his midnight ride, all of the colonists considered themselves British. Instead, he probably yelled, “The Regulars are coming!” a term used to describe British soldiers.
• That’s not Samuel Adams on the front of a Sam Adams bottle. It’s Paul Revere, who was much more handsome than Adams.

This made me realize that a lot of the things we learn(ed) in school are complete bullshit:

1. Paul Revere informed the folks in Concord that the British were coming. In fact, Samuel Prescott was the only rider to reach Concord. A third rider that night, William Dawes, accompanied Revere and Prescott, but he was thrown from his horse and walked back to Lexington.
2. Humans have five senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing). Actually, no… most social scientists also include pain, hunger, thirst, pressure, balance, acceleration, and time, among others.
3. Sentences cannot end with prepositions. Not true, and sometimes you’ll sound like Yoda if you try to do otherwise (e.g., “Rained out was the baseball game”). The classic joke is, “What is a preposition? A preposition is a word one must never end a sentence with.”
4. Division by zero is impossible. It’s not impossible; it’s just a bad idea. Weird stuff happens when you divide by zero, and it’s easier to avoid it by calling the action “undefined.”
5. Chameleons change color to blend in. ‘Twould be awesome were it so, but they actually change color to communicate. While you might flip someone the bird to let them know you’re unhappy, a chameleon would just change to a darker color.
6. Columbus thought the world was flat. No, he didn’t, and neither did most educated people at the time. Columbus’s mistake was actually underestimating the size of the Earth. He was lucky to have found the West Indies, lest he and all of his crew would have died of starvation.

Why do these inaccuracies persist? I suspect most of the errors are legacy content from hundred-year-old curriculum; the alternative is that it’s willful deceit on the part of educators, and that’s hard to swallow.

What other complete bullshit is still perpetuated in American classrooms?

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• 1. xander  |  August 7, 2014 at 10:54 am

These two are not so much outright lies, but rather little elisions that nonetheless make me a little crazy: (1) we often tell elementary aged children that you cannot subtract a larger number from a smaller number (e.g., 2 – 5 is impossible), then we introduce negative numbers; and (2) we tell older students that negative numbers don’t have square roots (and then we have the audacity to call the square root of -1 an *imaginary* number, as though it were more abstract than a so-called *real* number!).

• 2. venneblock  |  August 7, 2014 at 5:49 pm

Hear, hear! Item (1) is a major pet peeve of mine, too.

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