It’s so rare that I get to talk about math with other people and I did today, on a friend’s blog. I wanted to capture that here, because I referenced a few things I don’t usually get to talk about.
I’m autodidactic by nature. I always have been since I was a young girl and I spent most of my free time in a dictionary or the Encyclopedia Brittannica or perusing the stunning pictures and reading the articles of National Geographic magazine.
I’m still that way. I am a collector of books, and some of my favorites in my collection are a few antique math books. It’s ironic, because I had so much trouble in school with math. Some things were hard for me to grasp, and I still kept at it, receiving mostly B’s and sometimes C’s. It was the one subject that tended to pull down my GPA.
I had lots of anxiety during test time and my brain would freeze, even though I may have known the homework fairly well. I think I had some mild dyscalculia. I can’t hold numbers in my head long, which made it nearly impossible to do mental math and slowed me down and led to great embarrassment. I felt much better after discovering Dr. Emma J. King – who was a mathematician who can’t add numbers in her head either. She said hello to me once when I blogged about her years ago on one of my other blogs. I thought that was swell.
“Dyscalculia (difficulty in learning or comprehending mathematics) was originally identified in case studies of patients who suffered specific arithmetic disabilities as a result of damage to specific regions of the brain. Recent research suggests that dyscalculia can also occur developmentally, as a genetically-linked learning disability which affects a person’s ability to understand, remember, and/or manipulate numbers and/or number facts (e.g. the multiplication tables). The term is often used to refer specifically to the inability to perform arithmetic operations, but is defined by some educational professionals and cognitive psychologists as a more fundamental inability to conceptualize numbers as abstract concepts of comparative quantities (a deficit in “number sense”). Those who argue for this more constrained definition of dyscalculia sometimes prefer to use the technical term Arithmetic Difficulties (AD) to refer to calculation and number memory deficits.”
For me, I can think of the numbers and write them out, like 169 plus 243. But I’d never be able to hold those numbers in my head long enough to actually calculate them in my head. I’d even forget what numbers they were if I hadn’t written them out. They begin to get ‘fuzzy’ real quick. It’s really made me feel stupid sometimes.
But I found while I have number memory deficits, a lot of it stems from social anxiety related to it. Like trying to calculate tip in my head was impossible in a group of people or trying to figure out percents off when I went shopping when I was younger. I can now do it by myself and because I also picked up some shortcuts they never taught me (or I simply don’t remember learning) in school.
A mathematical savant I’d never be.
But it never stopped me from trying to learn math. I took the 5 credit hour Integrated Calculus and Analytic Geometry for Engineers and physics majors even though as a biology major, I could have taken the ‘easier’ course of Introductory Analysis. I don’t know if I had a glutton for punishment, but I just craved the challenge. And challenging it was. But I enjoyed studying with the cute engineering majors and ended up dating an Electrical Engineering major. I had gotten as high as Multivariate Calculus before I realized I was in way over my head and I dropped the class. However, in retrospect, I should have dropped the boyfriend and kept the class. 😉
And I KNOW don’t teach math right in school. Ever hear of The Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockhart?
I felt kind of cheated because there is so much that is beautiful in math that math teachers could have shared with us. I don’t know. The old belief was that girls couldn’t learn math, I guess. It’s still so prevalent that girls STILL believe they are weak in math.
I ran across this article from June 2008 in the U.S. News and World Report that disproves the theory that boys are better at math than girls. According to University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor Janet Hyde, the study’s leader:
[We sifted] through mountains of data—including SAT results and math scores from 7 million students who were tested in accordance with the No Child Left Behind Act. Whether they looked at average performance, the scores of the most-gifted children or students’ ability to solve complex math problems, girls measured up to boys. Although girls take just as many advanced high-school math courses today as boys do, and women earn 48 percent of all mathematics bachelor’s degrees, the stereotype persists that girls struggle with math, says Hyde. Not only do many parents and teachers believe this, but scholars also use it to explain the dearth of female mathematicians, engineers and physicists at the highest levels. Cultural beliefs like this are “incredibly influential,” she says, making it critical to question them. “Because if your mom or your teacher thinks you can’t do math, that can have a big impact on your math self concept.”
I became fascinated with numbers and patterns from reading some of Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern from Douglas Hofstadter.
Somewhere in my learning journey I came across this Youtube short “Nature by Numbers” by Cristobal Vila.
I also loved a kind of obscure novel called The Wild Numbers by Philbert Schogt.
Isaac Swift is a mathematician – not an outstanding one, but a competent, unextraordinary pencil-pusher. And like all mathematicians, he’s constantly reminded that it’s the prodigies of his profession who advance human knowledge. The rest just try to understand. Now Isaac thinks he’s found the solution to “Beauregard’s Wild Number Problem,” a puzzle that has stumped savants for centuries. And Dimitri, his mentor at the university, once a near-great mathematician himself, thinks Isaac is correct. If so, Isaac will have elevated himself to the ranks of the immortals. But now accusations of plagiarism arise, and the threat of violence that may not stop at the intellectual level looms over the university.
I found that book and had to pick it up.
I sometimes get to teach middle school math classes when I substitute. I find myself really enjoying them a lot more than when I went through it myself.
I still have yet to read physicist Paolo Giordano’s The Solitude of Prime Numbers and I think it might be a great time to.
Giordano’s characters are provocative, even disturbing at times, and yet they have a fragility that evokes our sympathy. As Alice struggles to navigate the cruel and arbitrary rules of high school, she reaches out and retreats inward in equal measure, and when she is rebuked by her classmates, she turns to Mattia as her only friend. But while Alice is rejected by the world, Mattia, in turn, rejects the world itself, severing himself from any visible emotional contact with anyone else. He escapes into numbers, replacing the chaos of life with the peaceful structures of mathematics—and yet, even there, he finds Alice. Together they pass through adolescence into adulthood, and their private world expands to include a constellation of characters who love, desire, despise, and ignore them. Clinging together and yet never able to connect fully, Mattia and Alice are forced to question whether it’s possible to unlock themselves from their painful pasts and overcome their deep loneliness by reaching out to each other. With artful precision, Giordano illustrates the bitter beauty of love and loss and how the two extremes are permanently intertwined. His novel is a brutally honest yet generous portrayal of two struggling souls. Mattia and Alice are neither good nor bad people, they are simply human, but they pay a deep price for the choices they make. Complex and compelling, The Solitude of Prime Numbers is an unsettling look at how the effects of a single moment can reverberate through a lifetime.
I just adore numbers now and have been really glad to have had my daughters, because I have gotten a new opportunity to revisit math and even teach them a few things when they were younger.
I’m also grateful to be talking with adults about one of my geeky passions too.