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.