Friday, March 6, 2009

Math Musings

The Topic: Math

The Blog:
Lewis Thomas wrote that Montaigne, an early essayist, frequently explored topics which interested him without researching or claiming expertise. I’ll have to take my cue from Montaigne today because I’m thinking about math.

Math fascinates me because it is the language of patterns (I think “language of patterns” came from The Calder Game…?). In that sense, it is a universal language. But let’s get this straight: I’m not good at it.

I hated math all through school—working through the box of math cards in second grade more slowly than other kids, multiplying three numbers by each other in fifth grade, grinding through algebra and trigonometry in high school. I based my college major on how I could get through without any math since I didn’t want to ruin my GPA. And I still let my mom figure out the right amount of material for making curtains.

To my surprise, though, I’ve been able to help my ninth-grade daughter with algebra right up through the third quarter, but that doesn’t mean I really understand it. All I do is find the pattern to follow, then follow it. I have no idea how the concepts would be applied in real life, but using the pattern helps in the meantime. Math is more approachable if I separate it into pattern recognition and pattern application.

I love the idea that math can describe patterns in nature and music; that math can predict future patterns based on present ones. Last summer I read The Secret Life of Numbers, a collection of essays about math for laypeople. It exposed a realm of thinking which, since I generally lack a frame of reference in which to apply it, I have largely already forgotten. One story that struck me, though, was one in which some mathematicians did a study on the shapes, or patterns, which are most efficient for tile-layers. That is, they figured out which shapes take the least amount of perimeter while enclosing the most amount of space. The answer? Hexagons. Then the author pointed out that bees figured out that same thing long, long ago, and hence the patterns we see in their honeycomb. Pattern and application.

As a naturally disorganized person, since the beginning of the year I’ve been thinking about organizing myself better both in writing and in life. I think I’ll try taking some hints from math—starting small--and find a pattern here, an application there.

The PHP (Personal History Prompt):
How did you feel about math growing up? Was it easy or difficult? Why? Did you have a teacher that helped or hindered your progress?

The Etymology: Mathematics
"From Greek mathema (gen. mathematos) 'science, knowledge, mathematical knowledge'; Math is the Amer.Eng. shortening, attested from 1890; the British preference, maths is attested from 1911."

The Picture Book(s): The "Sir Cumference" books by Cindy Neuschwander
Set in the time of King Arthur, these books tell fictional tales while explaining mathematical concepts like pi, circumference, the volume of a cone, etc., and are full of clever wordplay. They are so fun and were a delight to explore with my math-loving son.

The Links:
Try this link for games, explanations, etc. for different ages:
This site has preschool spring-theme count & trace worksheets:
I hope I can get back to this site; it lists books that explain the histories of math games (tic tac toe from Egypt?),board games for strategy, probability, etc., and more computer resources:

1 comment:

Anna Arnett said...

Sarah, your blog fascinated me. Very well done.

In aptitude and feelings, you seem to echo me to a T. Your insight, research, and knowledge far exceed mine, however. I didn't mind math, but arithmetic was always boring. I still have a hard time adding a large column. In school I was slow, and often wrong, because I lost track of how many times I'd run through my fingers.

Yet my Dad was one of the best math teachers ever. He made his way in Harvard (for a semester or two) tutoring others, often those in the class he was taking. But I wouldn't let him teach me anything about math. Something I've since regretted.

Reading your blog reminded me that I wrote a children's story I called "Math Pig" about my dad when he was young winning a bet about math. I'm thinking I'll dig it out, see if it's really any good, and submit it. Thanks for the impetus.