It’s taken nearly 20 years, but math has come back to bite me.
I was a kid (pretty much from first grade math on) who hated (hated!) math. I avoided it, I shunned it, I cursed it, I cried over it, I hid from it. I just didn’t see the point. My parents sympathized (they were not math people, either), but tried to tell me that I’d need math to get along in life for balancing checkbooks and…well, balancing checkbooks. I am sure that I regularly responded (through tears) “I’m not going to balance my checkbook!”
For the most part, that has turned out to be true. Thank you, Quicken.
I made the executive decision to end my misery in math during the first semester of trigonometry, which I was barely passing. We were studying vectors, and our teacher said that the math we were learning was useful to pilots. That cinched it for me: I wasn’t planning to fly planes, and so what was I wasting my time with trig for? I dropped out of math at the end of the semester and signed up for a course called “Foods” (really), a class which would make a fascinating case study on American public high school education, and from which I learned, through a series of excruciatingly slow filmstrips, that New England produced a lot of cranberries, and that onion slices, when thrown at your classmates, tend to disintegrate into their various layers. But that is another story entirely.
However bad vectors were, there was absolutely nothing worse than word problems. I dreaded them. Just
reading those things made me frustrated. It was as if math was taunting me. I didn’t see why I should have
to find out how fast Mr. Smith’s car was traveling (why didn’t he just look at the speedometer?) or whether train A or train B was going to arrive at its destination first (um, hello, that’s why we have timetables).
So, imagine my shudders when, as I was doing some reading at work on Friday, I came across this:
The energy that can be tapped from wind is proportional to the cube of the wind speed…Consider two sites, one with an average wind speed of 14 miles per hour and the other with average winds of 16 miles per hour….
Seriously, I thought my head might explode. For most people, these kinds of numbers and phrasing are no big deal. But they might as well be nuclear physics, or rocket science or brain surgery (or whatever your favorite clichéd expression may be) to me. I see words like “proportional” and “cube” and I panic.
I thought, this is some kind of 21st century 7th grade word problem, except that I’m not in 7th grade and I need to understand these things in exchange for being paid. My lifetime avoidance of math had quite suddenly been thrown into question. I had miscalculated: The parents were right! I really did need to know how to balance my checkbook. Except in this case, balancing my checkbook involved understanding how much more electricity the second wind farm generated than the first.
But just as I was having these thoughts (i.e. that my master plan of just pretending math didn’t exist might have been a mistake of huge proportions, that my mother had been right, that if I had just figured out how fast Mr. Smith was driving or how much older Sue’s father was than Sue, that I might now understand how much more power could be generated from a gusty site than from a merely breezy one) I noticed that there was no need for rethinking basic life principles (i.e. Math is Evil) because the answer was (just like the timetables and the speedometer and Sue’s father’s birth certificate) right there.