28 May, 2008

Editorial: My Math Journey

I've never done too well with numbers. Growing up as a young boy in school, math was always my worst subject. There would be some report cards that I would bring home where I would have good grades in all my subjects except math. This was in contrast to my older brother and father who could do complex calculations and formulas in their heads. I have distinct memories of them sitting around the table developing theorems of probability for mathematical riddles while I listened in confusion. But math just wasn't for me. It was convoluted, too many formulas, numbers, rules and absolutes.

For the longest time I tried to resist my math upbringing. My math teachers tried to convince me telling me things such as, "This is important stuff! What if you're building a bridge that millions of people will cross or if you're trying to fly the space shuttle into orbit. The math needs to be precise and exact or else people could die." I listened to what they said, but I couldn't conceive of a subject so rigid, so demanding that if I didn't follow its rules exactly that people would die. That's not the math I wanted to know. I would ask myself "What kind of cruel subject is this?"

After I graduated from high school I went my own way and departed from the math that I had been raised with. Only occasionally when taxes needed to be done or when I was trying to do a difficult job did I ever think about math. Sometimes at Christmas time when I was buying presents for people I'd think about math to add up how much I had spent. Or even at Easter time I'd think about math when I was trying to figure out how much water to add to the egg dye. But for most of the year I went about my daily life never really considering math. I considered those who relied upon math for their jobs as 'weak-minded.' I would see people like bankers, construction workers, doctors, etc. all using math every day to do their jobs claiming that if they didn't use math people's money would get lost, a building could collapse or someone could get the wrong amount of medicine. To me math was cruel, toying with humanity down through the ages.

After college something happened to me one day that began to make me think about math again. A friend of mine from college, Aaron, invited me out to coffee one Friday evening. We met and talked for a while, and during our conversation he told me about his job as a carpenter. "So you've off and joined up with those math-freaks," I immediately scoffed. For a moment he smiled, but then told me something that I had never heard before. "We do math a little differently where I work," he said. "At our company no one is forced to follow any specific math rules. Everyone is on his or her own math journey, seeking to know what is true about the world of math."

I listened, fascinated for almost 3 hours as Aaron told me about his own personal math journey. "For me, math is what I interpret it to be" he said. "When I go to build a house, I don't even follow plans or blueprints. I just kind of do what feels right, what I think is true. I use no tape measures, no chalk lines, rulers, survey machines, or any of that old stuff. I'm seeking to understand what math means to me."

When our conversation ended I went home that evening with a profound sense of curiosity. For the first time in my life I realized that math didn't have to be this rigid set of rules and regulations. I didn't have to go by the book. Math could be what I made it to be. The most important thing was not whether what added up was right or wrong, but whether I liked it and how it made me feel!

So now I find myself on my own math journey, seeking to discover what math means to me. This has affected almost everything about the way I live from the way I do my taxes, to how I balance my checkbook, pay my bills or even take my daily medicines. It's not so much now about which numbers are right but which numbers Ithink are right. So there are many paths to math, and this is the one I have chosen. It doesn't matter which path anyone else chooses because every path leads to the same place.


Lance said...

I wouldn't want to live in one of that carpenter's houses. Man, can you imagine the confusion that would result if people thought about their religion like this guy does math? Wow, that would be scary! Oh, wait...

Reformed Catholic said...

I too forgot decided to forgo my math underpinnings once I left school. In the military, while I often felt that math was needed, I found that as often as not I left it aside.

Then I found myself in a very dangerous situation and I discovered that there are no non-Euclidian geometrists in foxholes.

Since that time, I have renewed my study of classical math, and have moved into orthodox calculus. I have rediscovered the joys of polynomials and quadratic equations.

There is only one way to fine infinity, my friend !!

Reformed Catholic said...

Er ... to FIND infinity.

While I have rediscovered the one true way to math, I have not yet found the way to type without errors.

Joe said...

Do you know about the Doctrines of Gradients?

Brother Slawson said...

Hey Bro, be prepared. The next time you visit, at breakfast I'll ask "What 50 U.S. coins will add up to $1.00?" You can then scratch something on the paper quickly and then shout out the answer.

Jim Pemberton said...

You know, it really doesn't matter whether you do math in decimal, binary or hexadecimal. Practical math really depends on the proper conversion of units. Once you get that down it's fun to get into the more advanced stuff. For example, you may struggle with algebra-based physics and think calculus beyond you, but the calculations are actually easier when you learn to trust the math.