Friday, March 25, 2011

Math Block

Regular readers of my blogs and Web site have no doubt noticed that there is a fair amount of math underlying most of it. Although very little is beyond what I knew in high school, I've come to understand that its use may be behind the limited popularity of my writing. Even my novel (“Lights Out”), an adventure based on an early version of my population-consumption model, has been reported as almost too technical by some readers, though I went out my way to focus on the very human implications.

I've used math as a way to understand the world from the time I was eight years old, when I took an active interest in predicting the positions and motions of the stars and planets. My father, who loved to challenge my thinking, bought me a toy armillary sphere, which simulated how stars change their position in the sky as a result of the Earth's rotation and orbit. I've used the knowledge I gained from playing with that toy a lot since then, both for fun (as an amateur astronomer and geographer) and work (as a radar test engineer).

When my father experimented with reinventing math to help my brother, he enlisted my help to first test his ideas and then develop new ones. It became the core of the business we started together, which sought to show everyone how they could use basic observation and logic to “learn all the math they need to know.” No one was perhaps more frustrated than me with the way math was taught in school, especially as I was learning college calculus while developing a more natural way of understanding it with my father. We understood, along with our generous business partners and supporters, that math was simply abstraction built on reality, which had lost its roots in academia's rush toward teaching it as pure abstraction.

I openly admit that algebra was the hardest subject I took in high school, but now I use it as merely another language, shorthand for a simplified version of reality I see in my mind. Nearly twenty years after my last-gasp attempt to teach that reality to kids with my father and the dear, retired teacher worked with us, it's too easy to forget that most of today's adults and children still see math as language without substance that magically provides answers to questions they can barely comprehend.

When we were tutoring kids, calculators were already being used to bypass thinking, and today's computers have become far more successful at blunting our collective mental prowess. The “magic” has been harnessed with our electronic slaves, making us even more helpless than my father feared we would become when he (among other things) was teaching in the 1950s. I'm both frustrated and saddened that we have sacrificed so much wisdom for so much power that we are collectively like children playing with nuclear bombs, both figuratively and literally.

I refuse to give up hope that somehow we can relearn how to learn in time to avoid the catastrophe we seem headed for, as projected by my own limited research along with that of much smarter people than me. One of the signs that such hope is justified will be increased acceptance of the existence of human-induced climate change. Another will be an increase in intelligent public discourse that values evidence and reflects an understanding about how the world really works along with a willingness to develop more. Maybe, in my own little part of the world, there will be more of an interest in math.

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