## Posts tagged ‘Douglas Adams’

### True Inequalities

It’s true that Bertrand Russell once stated he could prove anything, given that 1 + 1 = 1. What’s likely not true is that someone challenged Russell to prove that he was the Pope, and he responded by saying, “I am one. The Pope is one. Therefore, the Pope and I are one.”

Whatever. Even apocryphal, it’s a fun story. Who needs truth, anyway?

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.

— Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

The following inequalities are — under some circumstances — true.

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**1 + 1 = 1**

See above. (Were you even paying attention?)

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**1 + 3 = 1**

This inequality comes from an athletic shirt that I own. What happens when one large, hungry fish meets three little fish? One large fish leaves with a full belly. (In case you can’t see it in the picture, there are four sets of small fish bones in the big fish’s belly.)

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**10 + 10 = 100
**

Binary much?

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**1/10 = 20%**

Middle school teachers will cringe at seeing this seemingly incorrect fraction-to-percent conversion, but it’s true if you’re looking at a nutrition label. Eat 10g of low-fat Swiss cheese with 1g fat and 9g protein, and 20% of your calories come from fat.

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**10 + 4 = 2**

On a calculator? No. On a clock? Yes. Move 4 hours past 10 o’clock, and it’s 2 o’clock.

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**1/2 + 1/3 = 2/5**

More for middle-school teachers to cringe about. But if you play sports and want to compute your shooting, passing, or batting average, this equation is totally legit.

### 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 Newton.

Ask Einstein.

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.