Curiouser and Curiouser

Dear Reader

Do you remember childhood you? The one that read picture books and comics instead of newspapers, novels, magazines, and… blogs? Not too long ago, my mom sent me a picture of worksheet I completed in second grade (pictured below). On it was a list of questions to get us to consider the academic progress we made during the year. When asked about my favorite chapter in math, I answered “money” — not even a full sentence just “money.” I did not mince words as a kid and was not familiar with the concept of decorum at age eight. However, that’s not the point. The point is that when asked about my favorite subject in second grade, I answered “math.”

Regarding #2, I think a “special” was a type of class like art, gym, etc.

Do you like math, Dear Reader? If no, then, did you ever like math? Math used to be easy. We learned how to count things, and then we learned to count things again by twos and threes, and then before we knew it, we learned about dividends, divisors, quotients, and decimals did not exist yet, just remainders. Math used to be good and whole, but just when everything started to make sense and you could recite your times tables all the way up to 15 — BAM! — quadratic equations, logarithms, trigonometry! Game Over.

As a graduate student I am required to take a certain number of quantitative courses, including statistics. The last time I took a math class (which coincidentally was statistics), I was a teenager. I haven’t taken a math class since high school but here I am once more finding probabilities and standard deviations. While I was nervous about taking this course at first, a funny realization came over me one day while I was doing my homework — I still (kind of) like math.

As I mentioned at the top of this post, I did used to like math. But somehow, I forgot this, as my fear of imaginary numbers and many years away from a math classroom deceived me into thinking that I disliked math. While I do not love math all of the sudden, I do have a newfound appreciation for all things quantitative to the extent that they make sense. And this sentiment reminds me of an interesting piece of history….

Have you heard of Charles Dodgson? Probably not, as he is much better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll, aka the guy who wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I read both the books in college (meaning also Through the Looking-Glass) and loved them for their lyrical lines and apparent absurdity. I say “apparent” absurdity not just because its alliterative, but because while on the surface the logic in the books seems ludicrous, in actuality it is based on Carroll’s advanced understanding of reasoning and rejection of deviant mathematical concepts.

Lewis Carroll was a mathematician first and foremost. He worked on geometry and algebra among other disciplines and was a prolific author producing dozens of books on mathematical logic and reasoning. Carroll was an authority in his field, but was “conservative and old fashioned” and skeptical of controversial ideas like imaginary numbers (for example, the square root of negative 1 = i an imaginary number). And so disturbed was he, that he wrote a book that mocked the logic of this new math. Wild! The twisted reasoning employed by the Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter and others is Carroll’s use of semi-logic, which is a most-sophisticated taunt to poke fun at those who rationalize irrational numbers and other “radical” arithmetic concepts. Even the mirrored moves of Tweedledee and Tweedledum (the symbiotic twins who seem to share a brain) represent the concept of chirality which in chemistry describes how some molecules cannot be reflected (flipped/ rotated) to mirror themselves…. I wish I understood this stuff better to appreciate all the math jokes.

I like math to the extent that it makes sense. As a graduate student, I will do research and therefore I will need statistics. Saving for retirement is important and therefore so is a good understanding of compound interest. However, I will never, ever need imaginary numbers or other advanced mathematical concepts that I do not even have the vocabulary to list here.

So, in the end, if you like math — yay you! If you don’t like math, consider translating your anguish for numbers into words and create the next great piece of children’s literature 😉



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