Friday, June 22, 2007

A pint of ale and some fear of math, please.

I'll let you in in on a big secret.

All right, it's not a big secret: I'm lousy at math.

My profession involves a lot of numbers, and the underlying principles involve a lot of math. I am assumed by others to know a lot of it. I don't. I took and passed all the courses with a decent grade - geometry, algebra, calculus, linear algebra... I solved all these problems that are given in an exam. This means that I understand a little of math, right?


This realization hit me when I have taken an X-ray crystallography course as part of my chemistry requirement. It had a lot of equations. Lots. In fact, it had things that I haven't even heard of until I took the class, what in the world is Fourier transform? I tried to catch up, but for the life of me, I just couldn't understand what in the world was going on. I was thoroughly embarrassed- it was the first time I needed my classmate to explain things to me; I was that clueless. In fact, that's when the well-known "impostor syndrome" descended upon me and stayed throughout my academic career.

Shortly after and for the longest time, I was in doubt about my own intelligence. What if I was simply stupid? I think my fear of math is deeply rooted. It didn't really surface until then. I believe it was already there when I was forced to memorize the multiplication table. But I did fine in school - I did just what was needed to get high marks in exams. I didn't really pay attention to how the equations were derived. When some concept required understanding, I'll just build a meta-mechanical device in my head that will help me understand the relationship between the variables. Just long enough for me to use the device and derive the answer come end of semester. I never truly got the grasp of the abstract nature of math. As Darwin is often quoted I found the whole affair "repugnant."

I took other courses. I read fast, often, and in multiple languages. And I did well. I wrote well, reasoned well, programmed well. I loved tinkering with things. I understood aesthetics. I understood what others felt, overcame stage fright and became socially acceptable.

But math, but math...I just could not. What is it with math? Is it just too abstract? I loved logic in philosophy. It was fun and almost as abstract, if uselessness is something close to the term. Is it the greek letters and arcane symbols that makes it impossible for me to read aloud? Is it too foreign? Feynman also found the mathematical notation to be too arcane and inefficient.*

I have the deepest suspicion that some people have some bit of elitism imbued alongside his understanding of math. My girlfriend is good with math. My roommates are good with math. I'm also bad with mental calculation. Maybe my insecurity with math distorts what I see in their face, but I see them sneer when I stumble through the simplest of divisions and roots. It's like I am illiterate. Maybe I am illiterate in some sense. But I don't do that to people who don't know anything about my field, so why should they? It's not fair!

Anyway, my first post is to explain why I started this blog. My motivation, as you may surmise from what you have skimmed from the prose above, is that I want to be able to be math literate. I want to understand the gibberish I stumble upon when I read the journal articles (some call it equation). And I don't mean this in very superficial manner - I want to get a sense of what I read and to have confidence in that I can tackle mathematical expressions and concepts as my peers appear to do.

I assume you have found this blog because you have the same fear as I do. Maybe you can join me in writing this blog. Maybe you came here to laugh at me and the aforementioned reader, to feel good about your mathematical literacy - you too can join and explain to us idiots just what it is that makes mathematical minds tick the way they do.

Go ahead and laugh, but I will be here for a while...

...and I have a plan.

* But then again, unlike most, he also invented his own notation to solve his problems. He went back to traditional notation when he was told that others cannot read his writings.

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