What you’ll need: graphing calculator, pocket protector

Songlist: U+Me=Us (Calculus) by 2together

Further reading: Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem by Simon Singh

The greatest moment of my young life (besides winning the 4th grade spelling bee with the word “terrarium”), was the Math Masters of Minnesota awards ceremony in 6th grade. Math Masters had three competitions: group problem solving, individual problem solving, and individual fact drill, for which you had to answer as many of the 75 arithmetic problems as you could in 5 minutes. After learning that my team got second place in the team competition and I got third place in the individual problem solving, I anxiously awaited results for the fact drill. I’d answered all 75 questions and felt pretty confident. As the names were called for 10th place, 9th place, 8th, I got increasingly excited at not hearing my name. When 2nd place was announced, I felt like a beauty pageant winner. And then I finally heard my name, 1st place for fact drill.

I knew I was good at math, but it never occurred to me why others might have trouble with the way math is taught. One of my friends explained that her brain works both qualitatively and logarithmically, which research has shown is the intuitive way humans first conceptualize numbers. In her mind, the difference between 1 and 2 is unequal to the difference between 9 and 10, since 2 is twice the size of 1. Also, she was part of our weekly trivia team before moving to the east coast; one night we had a question about how many outfits could be made from 3 hats, 4 shirts, and 5 pairs of pants and she complained that some hats wouldn’t go with more than one or two possible outfits. Sombreros and berets are not¬†interchangeable.

That's a good-looking logarithm

Unfortunately for my friend, we’re taught a linear, quantitative system in school. This is the basic starting point for all higher mathematics (and, more importantly, the counting of money). Yet linearity is not necessarily as integral to the workings of the world as we might think. The land works in logarithmic ways: earthquake magnitude and acidity are common examples. Even the way we perceive time is a logarithmic function: the older you get the faster time years seem to pass because they are a smaller ratio of your overall life.

I was fascinated by these concepts when my friend first told me about the workings of her brain, and I told her she’d make a great addition to a mathematics department, since she would go about solving problems in a much different way. She disagreed, as she would have no common language with the geniuses of the linear/quantitative model.

She’s probably right, but I thought about how I could go into higher studies in math and use what she’d told me to develop some new theory of the universe. I never went beyond high school calculus, though, so I’d have a lot of catching up to do. Sometimes I regret that I didn’t progress further, as I loved pretty much every math class I ever took. Sometimes I think I’m doing that sixth grade version of myself a disfavor. On the other hand, I’m no Will Hunting. I was good at adding and subtracting in record time; who knows if I’d have been good at manifolds or combinatorial topology…

 

PS. Oh man, I love numbers! Today is 1/2/12. And as of today I have 222 posts, 2 pages, 22 categories, and 522 tags. WHOAWEIRD. Amiright?

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