Calculus as fun

October 1, 2009

I used to love math tests.  And math homework. When I knew the stuff, I’d start hearing Bach in my head and get into a rhythm of solving the problems (though I didn’t know it was Bach until much later — “Aha!  That’s the math solving music!”).

But eventually my brain ossified, before I got calculus into it.  I believe (this is belief, not science) that at some point rather early in life our brains lose the ability to pick up new math ideas.  If you don’t have most of the stuff you need already in there, you won’t get it.  I frittered my math ability away in the library and traveling with the debate squad, not knowing that I’d never be able to get it back.  In my dual degree program, I ran into that wall where I had five years worth of credits, but was still a year away from the biology degree with a tiny handful of core courses for which calculus was a prerequisite.  Worse, I was close to completing a third major.

And I’d failed at calculus four times.

So I graduated instead, didn’t go to grad school in biology.

Earlier this last evening I sat with a couple of new teachers in math at a parents’ night function for seniors.  They commiserated over trying to make math relevant for students.  One said he couldn’t figure out how history teachers survive at all with no mass of problems to solve at the end of each chapter (that was refreshing).

It’s a constant problem.

Then I ran into this story by Jennifer Ouellette at Cocktail Party Physics:


Students need to feel inspired, particularly when it comes to a difficult subject. While I was at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics last year as journalist in residence, I got to know UC-Santa Barbara mathematician Bisi Agboola, who generously shared his own story with me. Bisi was educated in the UK and failed most of his math classes through their equivalent of high school. “I found it dull, confusing and difficult.” As a child, he was determined to find a career where he wouldn’t need any math, finally announcing to his skeptical parents that he would be a woodcutter. He was crushed when they pointed out that he would need to measure the wood.

But one summer he encountered a Time-Life book on mathematics –- Mathematics by David Bergamini -– that offered “an account of the history of some of the main ideas of mathematics, from the Babylonians up until the 1960s, and it captured my imagination and made the subject come alive to me for the very first time.” It changed his mind about this seemingly dry subject. He realized there was beauty in it. He wound up teaching himself calculus, and told me he is convinced most physicists also do this. Today he is a PhD mathematician specializing in number theory, and exotic multidimensional topologies. Ironically, he still doesn’t much like basic arithmetic: “I find it boring.”

Jennifer is writing a book on calculus, how it’s real-life stuff.  I hope it’s a great success.  I hope it works.  I hope some student is inspired to get calculus before her or his brain gets ossified.

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