01 March 2010


Growing up, I was a high academic achiever, partly due to my mother's insistence, and partly because I simply enjoyed learning. In high school I took all the most demanding classes offered, in all disciplines. Not to say that I didn't struggle -- but the challenge of working things out, solving mysteries, wrestling to understand history or literature or music or the sciences -- this was both intimidating and thrilling.

Of the math classes (algebra, plane and solid geometry, trigonometry), I most enjoyed algebra. It was like solving a mystery or a puzzle. Solving equations to determine the value of an unknown (usually designated by a letter, e.g. x or y or z) was just plain fun. A simple example: if 2x = 6, it's pretty clear that x must = 3. That's intuitive even to non-mathematicians. The fun starts with more complex equations, including (but not limited to) quadratic equations. I just ate that stuff up.

Which was lucky, because my coursework in college was heavily weighted toward the sciences, whose common language is math. There is also a tight relationship between music and math. I confess I had a hard time with calculus (both differential and integral), though it's possible that a better teacher would have made a difference. Even so, I retained enough to actually become a teacher of general math, algebra and geometry later in life. To this day I can do math in my head faster than most people (especially store clerks) can manage on calculators or cash registers. Ha. I learned higher math back in the pre-calculator days of slide rules.

All of which leads us to Steven Stogatz's article in today's NYTimes -- the fourth installment in his series on math, this one titled (appropriately) "The Joy of X" (not to be confused with the book The Joy of Sex, though who knows?) . Stogatz does a wonderful job of laying out the basics of algebra, clearly and eloquently. A few quotes: "Solving for x is detective work. You've been handed a few clues about it, either in the form of an equation or a word description .... the goal is to identify x from the information given." ...... "Working with formulas, on the other hand, is a bit like art and science. Instead of dwelling on a particular x, you're manipulating and massaging relationships that continue to hold, even as the numbers in them change. These changing numbers are called 'variables', and they are what truly distinguishes algebra from arithmetic."
Well and truly spoken. Check out the complete article, and see if it doesn't pique your interest. One is never too young, or too old, to learn something new. I look forward to the remainder of Stogatz's series.

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