Tue – October 14, 2003
Or why it’s important to be technical.
My son takes AP calculus and physics at Torrey Pines High School in North County, San Diego. It’s hard, he sometimes struggles, and I’m very, very proud of him.
For my own part, I was never a scholar in maths. Somewhere around fourth or fifth grade, we were introduced to negative integers. I rebelled. If you had four pencils, and took away five, you’d find that after you’d taken away four, there were no more pencils to take, I reasoned – you’d have to stop. The theoretical, potential fifth pencil my teacher tried to sell me on seemed so much more adult blather, comforting to say aloud perhaps, like the rosary, but ultimately senseless. I was querulous, she was harassed, I was told to get on board. I stayed in the station, awaiting better logic.
My agnosticism persisted all through algebra, a pointless exercise in mental master debation. What on earth were these letters doing in what was ostensibly a mathematical question, and what was a variable, anyway? And what exactly would one do with the area under the curve, in the real world? No one could be bothered to tell me.
It was not until my junior year at the Naval Academy, when we started to do differential equations, that the light came on. Eureka! Drop a wrench from orbit, and over time it would accelerate at a determinable pace, up until the moment when it entered the atmosphere, where friction would impede the rate of acceleration at an increasingly greater rate (based on air density, interpolated over a changing altitude) and that wrench struck someone’s head at a certain velocity, that any of this applied in the real word. By then it was too late, I was too far gone, and an opportunity was lost.
Believing in the gradual perfectibility of man, I ensured that my son took his math studies seriously. “Math is how the world works,” I would tell him solemnly. “It makes the world turn, or if it does not, explains why, and how fast.” I think he bought it. In ninth grade chemistry, he once exclaimed aloud, “it really is all math!”
Mission accomplished. I was at that time the commanding officer of an FA-18 squadron, The underlying work was technical to a degree, and I got by through experience, memorization and rule of thumb. But I could not pull the curtain back, and see the little man manipulating the controls.
My son had a revelation of sorts, a kind of epiphany that freshman year. He asked me to help him with a math problem, that proved utterly beyond my capability. I made phone calls to mathematical friends, we worked it out, but the scales had fallen from his eyes. I think he realized that he had in a sense overtaken me, at age 13. I was not entirely ready for this, but happy nonetheless. My concern? Having told him for years how important math was, I had demonstrated that a certain degree of success was possible without it. Would this call into question everything else I had tried to teach him? Time would tell.
So far, so good. He’s a good man.
But I still wish that someone would have told me how to get at that fifth pencil, in a way that would have captured my imagination.