Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Happy Square Root Day!

Today, March 3, 2009, is Square Root Day, a "holiday" that is, according to Wikipedia, "celebrated on dates where the day and the month are both the square root of the last two digits in the current year;" so, since today is 3/3/09, it's Square Root Day. Enjoy it, because the next one won't occur until 4/4/16.

I understand the concept of square roots, which is surprising, considering my history with mathematics.

I thoroughly enjoyed math until, toward the end of my third grade year, we got to the 11 times table. Up to that point, everything had made sense to me, and I also did fine with the 11 times table through "11 x 9," which, in case you have forgotten, equals 99, and which, you see, is easy to figure because all you have to do is to replace the 1s in 11 with the digit by which you're multiplying it, so that, for example, 11 x 2=22, 11 x 5=55, and 11 x 9= 99 but, and here is where the crisis arose for me, 11 x 10 is not 1010 and 11 x 11 is not 1111 and 11 x 12 is not 1212; for some reason that was unfathomable to my eight year old mind, 11 x 10=110, 11 x 11=121, and 11 x 12+132 (you might want to check my answers--like I said, it never made sense to me).

Still, I managed to recover and did ok with such things as long division.

I even liked Algebra.

It was geometry that finally killed it for me; one day during geometry class I asked our teacher what good, unless I became an architect, geometry was going to do me, and I think she said something about learning for learning's sake, and I stopped caring.

If geometry killed it for me, then trigonometry shoveled the last bit of dirt on the grave, because I had absolutely no idea what was going on in that class, a problem that was exacerbated by the fact that I came down with mono and missed two weeks of school and never did recover--from the missed class time, not the mono.

In 1993 I was interviewing for a teaching position in the School of Religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. I had thus far in the process experienced some pleasant meetings with the Religion faculty and with the Provost and was enjoying my interview with Dr. Troutt, the University President, when he asked me a question that I did not anticipate: "Mike, I was wondering how you managed to get through college without taking any math."

I was shocked that Dr. Troutt had actually looked at my college transcript and I was even more shocked that he had examined it closely enough to notice that I had managed to complete my degree requirements at the prestigious Mercer University without ever setting foot in the Math building and frankly, I was offended—offended that he chose to ask me about what I had not taken rather than about some of the incredibly challenging courses that I had taken at Mercer, courses like the Sociology of Race, Public Speaking, and Art History, not to mention all of the Religion courses that I had taken at Mercer and Southern Seminary that actually pertained to what I would be teaching at Belmont if I got the job, which I did, and my performance in which, I must say, did not suffer despite my lack of Math education, except that maybe it was harder for me to compute grades than it should have been, but that’s why God made calculators, isn’t it?

But I had to answer his question, so I did, explaining to Dr. Troutt that it was not my fault that back in the late ‘70s one could graduate from Mercer with just one Math course and that, due to my amazing test taking skills, a bit of luck, and the direct intervention of the Almighty, I had, upon taking the CLEP tests, been given credit for College Algebra, which in turn fulfilled Mercer’s Math requirement and made it unnecessary for me to visit the Math building and that, being the intelligent person that I am, chose not to take any courses that I did not have to take and which, if I did take them, might hurt my GPA, which as he could see on my transcript, was quite high (I’m not good with numbers but I do remember my college GPA, but I will not mention it here, because I’m too humble, not to mention too afraid that someone will find a way to check it out).

He smiled at me and let it go, no doubt impressed with my logical reasoning skills, which he no doubt wondered how I acquired, considering my appallingly bad math education.

I have to admit, though, that now, here in the midst of my 50th year, I wish not only that I had taken more math but that I had taken the math that I took more seriously.

There are reasons for that.

For one thing, I think that the math part of my brain is underdeveloped, a diagnosis that I’m sure an MRI of my brain would reveal. Were such a test to be done, the pictures would show that the part of my brain that deals with words and ideas would be full of activity while the part of my brain that deals with numbers would be full of cobwebs. Seriously, despite what I said earlier, sometimes my logic is not too strong and I think it’s because I did not learn to think mathematically.

But the main reason that I wish I had delved more deeply into mathematics is that I have a feeling that those who say that math is the language of God just may be right. I have read somewhere that math is the universal language, so much so that if we ever make contact with intelligent life elsewhere in the universe it will likely be in the language of mathematics that we first communicate.

Now, any mathematicians who are reading this might quibble with what I am about to say and if I am wrong I hope you will let me know but it seems to me that mathematics is logical and orderly and that it tends to produce solid and verifiable answers. I’m sure that there are many unanswered questions in math but I’m also sure that, when solutions to mathematical problems are arrived at, much certainly is achieved. Perhaps it’s fair to say that mathematics is more predictable and less doubt-prone and less conflict-producing than many other types of thinking and realms of study.

I’m sure that I overstate the neatness of mathematical reasoning and of mathematical solutions, but it sure seems that it exceeds the neatness of my chosen (well, I didn’t really choose it—I was called to it) field of theology, which can be, I must admit, downright messy at times, because, whether I or anyone else involved in it likes it, much of my field, which is the study of God, requires steps and even leaps of faith.

And yet, when I catch glimpses of God, which I fully believe I from time to time do, I am, as unverifiable as my results are from a mathematical or scientific point of view, certain—that’s right, I said certain—of the reality of God and, more importantly, of the reality of the love of that very real God, as certain as I am, and maybe even more certain than I am, of the fact that the square root of 9 is 3.

So Happy Square Root Day! On this day, celebrate the logic and certainty of mathematics.

But watch out for two days that are on the horizon—Good Friday and Easter. On those days, celebrate the love and grace of God.


Joe said...

I, too, went to Mercer University. I graduated in 1975. I have been following your blog for over a year. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I hope you make it to Florida this spring.

Because of the Experimental Freshman Program (EFP) I was required to take one English composition course and three EFP courses, then I could take whatever I wanted. I took a pretty broad mixture.

I took a Logic course from Dr. Ted Nordenhaug, Chairman of the Philosophy Department. I think the grade for that class was determined by a final exam. During the quarter I was making progress and keeping up with daily assignments until about two weeks before the end of the quarter. For some reason I quit going to class. (I did that sometimes in those days.) I showed up for the final and thought that I would breeze through. (What was I thinking?) Dr. Nordenhaug gave the members of the class three options for taking the final. Students could opt for the A test, B test, or the C test. Students who took the A test could miss some of the questions and end up with a B, a C, or worse. Students taking the B test could make a B or lower. The C test takers could make a C or lower.

Since I had not been to class in two weeks I took the A test. (??) I sat and looked at the test for about 15 minutes and did not know a single answer. I didn’t want to leave so soon, so I waited a few more minutes, then turned in my paper, and left the room.

Later that afternoon I was sitting in the library reading the newspaper and getting ready to study for another final when a student approached me. Dr. Nordenhaug wanted to see me in his office. I made it over to Dr. Nordenhaug’s office where he volunteered to give me another chance at the final. This time he recommended that I take the C test in the morning. I stayed up most of the night studying, then took the Logic final the next morning. I passed with a C and felt much better.

After taking the test I stopped by the cafeteria where a student asked me how I liked the Journalism final. I said, “Huh, the Journalism final is this afternoon.” He assured me that the test had been given during the morning. I ran over to the Journalism classroom where Billy Watson, the Journalism professor and an editor of the Macon Telegraph, was gathering the completed exams before heading back to the Telegraph offices. I pleaded with him to let me take the Journalism final in his office that afternoon. He reluctantly agreed.

Much later Dr. Nordenhaug and I laughed about my poor work habits. During my four years at Mercer I read many books, engaged in many academic discussions, took part in a few adventures, searched for my place in this world, and occasionally went to class. He and I were both aware of my shortcomings. We discussed them at length. I asked for advice several times, but he never gave me any answers. He only made sure that I was asking the right questions.

Joe W. Davis

cartercanes said...

I have run across a few interesting math ideas over the years. A few are:
1. The Golden Rectangle". The rectangle, which has a specific side ratio, is valued as the most lovely rectangle in the world by people. Indeed, the Taij Mahal in India is revered as the most beautiful building in the world and it has the Golden Rectangle shape. Numerous buildings are designed with the rectangle for astetic purposes. Also, the ratio of the height of a person to the height of the belly button is 1.666, the Golden Ratio. A number of things in the real world, accident or otherwise, fit the ratio.
2. The Fibbinocci sequence, the first few terms are 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13....fit the order that leaves will appear on certain flowers, and also the order that buds appear on pine cones. The sequence appears often in nature.
2. You might find interesting, the Trachtenburg system, which uses a totally different method of multiplying basic numbers. For instance 11 times, say, 132 can be written immediately by writing the most right digit (2), and then adding the successive digits and writing each down. So 11 times 132, we get a 2, 5, 4, 1. So, in reverse, then product is 1452.

It seems to me that math may be the language of God. Does that make God a mathematician? That idea leads to a question. If we are made in God's image, does that mean we look like God? Does God have a head and legs, and feet? If God is good with math, then why aren't we?
Perhaps math ability is an area where some people are more "gifted" than others, like music, painting, mechanics, etc.
Are some people more "gifted" for religion, faith, believing, or for having a Godly experience on Earth (like seeing a vision or exhibiting stigmata)?