I have to admit something. I love something I cannot have. What is that? I love math but suck at it. I will never have a true talent for math and I sincerely wish I had a natural talent for it. Oh, I can do a lot of math including differential equations and statistics (“sadistics” as we used to refer to it) and so forth…but don’t have a natural ability for it like I do for the sciences. I flunked calculus II, and vector calculus in college and came very close to flunking algebra I in high school. Of all my classes from elementary school through grad school, math is the subject where I got my lowest grades. Despite my weakness, I have a decent career as an engineer and working towards a doctorate involving planetary science and computational fluids. The irony is amazing when you think of it. Like my lack of natural talent for running, I had to work hard at math. And I still love it and have learned a lot of life lessons in doing math. Here is a list:
1. Creativity in solving a problem is a priceless asset and usually an indicator of talent.
2. Putting on a helmet and ramming a brick wall can also work and sometimes is necessary.
3. Practice doesn’t make perfect…it makes for comfort, experience, and skill. This is why we do math drills over, and over, and over again growing up.
4. Math is the universal language. Love isn’t. If we ever discover a sentient extraterrestrial species, we will first communicate with math.
5. Rules and rhyme are as important in math as they are in language.
6. I speak math in the equivalent of an Appalachian hillbilly. It may not be the Queen’s English but functionally, I can express some high level concepts.
7. Getting better at math makes many of the sciences go better.
8. A calculator is an advanced tool like a weapon. You have to be trained to use it properly and understand what it really can do or cannot do. All the calculus firepower in a calculator doesn’t mean squat if you don’t know the basics of all the math that precedes calculus.
9. Working hard can pay off. Not always, but much of the time.
10. To be a good runner you have to put in your time, sweat, face your anxiety, and prove to yourself what you can really do. Same with math.
11. Paper, erasers, and pencils in the hands of a determined person can build a world.
12. A table of mathematical functions would be one book I would save if the world were to end.
13. Reason and logic trumps all else.
14. Keep calm and just work it.
15. You learn organization when keeping track of all the terms, signs, coefficients, limits, variables, etc..
16. A simple mistake early on can lead to unexpected and unrecognizable results.
17. You learn how to get to step A to Z even if you can’t see how. Sometimes you go from A to Z and back to A.
18. Insight comes with experience. What was tedious and repetitious work for you may be seen as genius by the inexperienced
19. Frustration comes with the territory in math, as in life.
20. Life is a sequence of iteration and do-overs. So is math.
21. Spending four pages or four hours of work to come up with a simple answer mimics the universe. In the end, the solution is simple although the steps to get to it may be difficult
22. Science is the prose of the gods. Math is their poetry.
23. X and Y are the best letters and there is mystery in them. 2, 1/2, and Pi are the best numbers.
24. Math drills are to science what mixing colors, shading techniques, and brush strokes are to the artist.
25. Solving a math problem gives me warm and fuzzies.
26. Math works because it is true. No amount of debate, disagreement, or complaining will make 2 = 3.
27. It can be hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it. That being said, there is about as much excuse for ill-numeracy as there is for illiteracy.
28. It can be fun too.
29. I can’t do adding or subtraction in my head worth a damn but can do some calculus in my head. Go figure. Yes, pun intended. Lesson: we are all a collection of contradictions and unexpected weaknesses and abilities.
30. I make mistakes often. Some of them I repeat over and over again.
31. …that is why we need erasers and patience in this life.
32. Doing math often teaches you the fine line between stubbornness and determination.
33. A lot of math can be understood with pictures. Newton explained calculus from an argument based on simple geometry. Of course he was brilliant.
34. What seems unrelated on the surface may in fact be the same thing deep down. If you ever plot a family of curves and then see they are all the same differential equation, then this hits you like a ton of bricks.
35. Be careful in your conclusions. 2 x 2 = 4 and so does 2 + 2. But this is the only positive integer for which this is true. Dealing with people is similar.
36. Failure is not necessarily fatal or final. After bombing algebra I, I spent the summer before college re-teaching myself and did quite well on my placement exams as a freshman and even outperformed AP calc students. I also took Calculus II and Vector Calculus over and became very good at them both.
37. You will forget a lot of things. Keep your books and notes and learn to re-teach yourself the old stuff and the new.
38. Nothing makes a clear math problem vague than the math department of a university. Want to know how to solve it? Find out from an engineering or physics professor.
39. Engineers and physicists are separated from mathematicians by a common language.
40. You can be correct in your answer with totally the wrong approach and vice versa.
41. Rules may be made to be broken in life but usually it comes at a cost. Same with math. No math rule is stupid. They are there because it works, not because of the whim of another person.
42. Need a lesson in humility? Take a new math class.
43. I suck at math. That doesn’t stop me from using it and getting better at it. Same with many things in life.
If you read this far, you deserve some math humor: