No aptitude for math? Don’t fret, even Einstein had off days

It appears I am genetically impervious to the joys of mathematics

If memory serves, I spent just one high school year studying the subject of geometry.  The experience was nauseating, terrifying and bewildering.

And here is the sum total of what I remember: In a right-angled triangle, the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.

Now ask me how many times, in the decades since, I have needed to know anything at all about squares on triangles. Or hypotenuses. I think this is probably the first time I have ever used the word ‘hypotenuse’ since those dreary, dreadful days.

I also have, in the dustbin that passes for my mind, vague memories of things called sines and cosines, logarithms and quadratic equations. Today, I wouldn’t know a quadratic equation from a quadriplegic Klingon. Nevertheless, I was doomed to spend uncountable hours in geometry, algebra, trigonometry and calculus classes having higher mathematical esoterica drilled in to my skull

Well, not so much ‘drilled into’ as ‘ricocheted off.’  It seems I am genetically impervious to the joys of mathematics. All those propositions and equations pinged off my brainpan like BBs off a tin roof. Trying to teach me higher math was a colossal waste of time — both the teachers’ and mine. The difference was, the teachers were getting paid.

Aside from the misery, there have been two long-term detrimental effects for me.  Number one, I have always felt guilty about my arithmetical impotence. Number two, I rear and freak like a spooked horse at the merest sight of numbers I’m expected to do something with.  Figure out my bank balance? GAAAAH!  Calculate my height in centimetres?  Mercy!

I’m not belittling mathematics per se. The writer Don De Lillo defines mathematics as “what the world is when we subtract our own perceptions” — and I’m okay with that. I’m also aware that one of the great scientific treatises of the renaissance was a book called ‘Ars Magna’ (The Great Art). It was subtitled The Rules of Algebra.  Fine. I’m just saying that mathematics and me equals The Date from Hell.

Turns out I can finally let the guilt go. An item in a recent issue of the New York Times says that algebra, trig and calculus instruction is wasted on students who have no aptitude for higher math — indeed, on anyone not heading for a career in engineering or science.

What makes the article compelling is the fact that the two authors, Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford, are career mathematicians. They make the argument that society would be much better served if math duds like me are given a course in what they call ‘quantitative literacy,’ which is to say, we should have been taught the basics of handling our own finances, plus straightforward concepts such as percentages, probability and risk. In other words, mathematics that could actually be useful as opposed to, say, squares on the hypotenuses of right-angled triangles.

Makes sense to me. Last year, a spokeswoman for The Vanier Institute of the Family announced that when you factor in mortgages, credit cards debt and lines of credit, the average Canadian family is carrying $100,000 in debt. Perhaps with a better grounding in basic math, more folks would figure out that maxing out their cards and paying a Mafia-worthy interest rate of 20 per cent on the balance is actually kind of a crummy deal. You don’t have to be Albert Einstein to get that.

Speaking of whom, can you explain what the most famous equation of all time — E=mc squared — actually means?

Me neither. But don’t feel bad.  Somebody once said, “Since the mathematicians have attacked the Relativity Theory, I myself no longer understand it.”

The somebody who said that was Albert Einstein.


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