Math is beautiful, or just learning to think

Posted in Society at 19:36 by RjZ

The other day I got the chance to tutor my niece. She needed some algebra help; solving equations with exponents. I actually don’t think she really needed much help; what she needed was a chance to concentrate. I could hear her little brother bouncing around the room and vying for her attention and even her father was trying to facilitate the phone call. All this distraction seemed to make her want, most of all, was just to get this over with, and who can blame her?

I was pretty glad about one question she didn’t ask though. At no point did she raise the classic teenage reaction to troublesome mathematics, namely “when am I gonna use this stuff anyway?” It’s a fair question, actually. How often have you had to simplify equations of the sort x3y-2/x5y4? Note: hers were much more daunting than this! Working with exponents beyond knowing approximately what they are, isn’t something we have to do much in order to be sure our bank balance right, and I bet you just trust the bank’s computers to do that nowadays. Who balances a check book, or even uses checks, any more?

What high school teachers and parents alike fail to mention (and this too is understandable since not many students would likely listen) is that you learn this stuff not for the content alone, but rather to sharpen your brain and learn how to think. To learn that with some quiet contemplation and concentration, you too, can do it. Learning how to think is as much of the battle as studying algebra.

“I’m never gonna be a rocket scientist!” is another argument a teenager might make against annoying homework. Problem is, that’s today. Tomorrow, things might change and only by being exposed to this broad range of thought and experience can you reliably choose just what moves you. There is more than one reason most of us don’t end up becoming what we thought we’d be when we were 10 years old. It might not have been realistic to plan on being an astronaut or astronomer (which was certainly my plan). But even if it were, learning a wide enough range of things gives you the chance to realize that maybe you really want to be a ceramicist, neuroscientist, accountant, fireman, or teacher instead.

I’d already given up on the astronomer plan by the time I chose physics in college. Today, my degree mostly just makes people go “oooo, sounds hard” but I don’t use it very often either. Still, I’ll never forget the moment in my electro-magnetism class when we finally arrived at an equation that related two mundane natural constants for electricity and magnetism to…wait for it…the speed of light ( c2 = 1/(ε0μ0, in case you’re wondering). I was floored. I felt like Maxwell himself. How could the speed of light suddenly fall out of equations dealing with things like Ohm’s law for resistance. One minute we’re talking about capacitors and resistors and the next the speed of light is on the board. Sometimes the seeing the beauty in art is an inspiration. Other times, it’s the beauty of an equation. If you never got the hang of math, I can tell you, you’re missing out. (stop your snickering!) Hopefully, at least you gave it a fair try.

My niece resisted the typical teenager temptations, and I’ll call that a victory, even if she’s still having trouble with algebra right now (if you read this, feel free to call and ask for more help!) Loads of things give us trouble and that too is a lesson. Math may end up coming easier to her with time, or it may not, but learning your limits isn’t a bad thing either. Following your strengths is often a great path to happiness, and it works better if you have an idea what you’re actually good at. You can only know that if you keep trying at a bunch of things. And sometimes just letting your brain work on something in silence is enough for all that magic to happen.


  1. Alyssa said,

    August 10, 2012 at 19:45

    That’s great! Thanks, I’ll give you a call if I ever need help again! Thanks!!

  2. David Giltner said,

    August 11, 2012 at 7:44

    Excellent discussion, Ron. I’m forwarding this to my sons.

  3. Chrissy said,

    August 14, 2012 at 10:56

    Quite the inspirational blog entry, Ronald!

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    August 17, 2012 at 11:33

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