By the Numbers

I have an uneven relationship with mathematics. I didn’t learn my multiplication tables until I was about 12. It took me 3 months to learn long division, and I don’t think I would remember it now. I struggled to get the principals of mathematics and I’m afraid that while I take it as a given that you can’t divide by zero, it doesn’t make much sense to me.

Part of it surely was the way we taught math in the 1980’s. There was no understanding of the needs of different types of teaching for different types of learners. We taught math one way, and if you didn’t get that, well too bad for you.

Too bad for me indeed.

What I most remember, as I think about my rapprochement with mathematics was the moment in a University Calculus class where the professor was talking about how we approached a limit but never actually got there, and he stood back from the overhead projector and said “this is beautiful.”

Most people groaned. This was not beauty! But I sat in the back of that class and I looked and thought:

“Yes. It’s a form of beauty. A strange sort, but a form. There is something in getting ever closer, but being structurally unable to reach the limit. Perhaps not beauty. Perhaps a sense of wonder.”

I took statistics and I love stats. Stats are what I affectionately call mechanical mathematics. This isn’t pure math, this is workman like math – you put a number in, a condition in, a data set in, and you get something out. It’s all very provable and sensible and straightforward. Stats don’t hide their work for you – it’s all there. You can calculate standard deviation and in a few pictures I can show you what that actually means. I work with large sets of data – although less often now – and I love looking at the numbers.

I’m a bit of a detective, holding up spreadsheets, interested to see what truths they can tell me about a given situation. I know how to look more deeply and I’m comfortable with this sort of math – I know what numbers can tell me, and more importantly what they can’t.

But, back to that bit about pure math and wonder. I thought I hated pure math, and then a few years ago, I realized that I have always played with numbers before I sleep. I recite the Fibonacci sequence to myself when I cannot sleep, doing large sums in my head to help my brain slow down.

Which I suppose is how I come to the article I read on slate this morning about the bounds of prime numbers. The article was heavy reading for Slate, a bit inscrutable and I must confess I was waiting for the bottom line at the end, and the bottom line is not so clear.

But there is this – at some point, when I think about going back to get my MBA, I will have to delve back into the world of pure mathematics again. And this time, with 15 years of life under my belt, it won’t be so scary.

Because anything that can invoke wonder is not so scary.

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3 Responses to By the Numbers

  1. a says:

    Numbers are wonderful, and the infinite arrangements of them that make up math are astounding.

    Time out in our house has consisted of sitting in the corner and counting ever since we could get the kid to count. It’s a wonderful way to re-engage your brain into something other than that which was making you crazy…

  2. Michele says:

    I always HATED math. Like hated it. Like you, I was part of the 80s, ‘here’s how we do math’ generation. It wasn’t until college, when I took a class about the Art of Mathematics that I truly found an aspect of it and the deep, moving historical spirituality of it that I could understand and get behind. Changed my whole view of the subject!

  3. According to my university professor, alcohol helps with calculus.

    “Hey, _____. Did you go drinking the night before that exam?” he calls across the room as we’re all leaving.

    “No.” comes the feeble reply from me.

    “Maybe you should have!”

    I never did make it through that class…

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