Monday, April 20, 2015

For the Love of Math

Math was never my favorite subject and I wasn't very good at it. But, as an adult, I realized one day that math problems, at least the basics, were easier than any other problems in my life. There's one logical way to solve them and, if I follow the rules, the answer will be correct. No gray area. No debate.

2 + 2 = 4

This revelation hit about the time my oldest child turned two. Parenting is the most humbling job on the planet. We all know this. Most of us start out with such high ideals. We're going to be the best parents and we're going to do everything right - or at least different from what our parents did with us. By the time our kids turn two, most of us just hope they won't end up in therapy some day because of something we said or did.

3 x 1 is 3, 3 x 2 is 6, 3 x 3 is 9

The multiplication tables do what they're supposed to do. They're constant. 3 x 3 never says, oh, today I think I'll be 22. Relationships with numbers are much more reliable than relationships with people. The latter have too many variables. In my first real job, I used to dread when my boss would suddenly become very patient because I knew he was about to forgive me for some mistake HE had made.

-3x + 2y -2z = -10

A math problem with variables can still be solved logically, once you know how. Our political science professor used to tell us over and over, "The easy problems have already been solved". This, of course, leaves us with the difficult, messy, human problems to wrestle with, like poverty and bigotry. There are no easy logical 2 + 2 kind of answers to these problems.

dy/dx = x sin 2x + y tan x, - π/2 < x < π/2

Historically, 2 + 2 has always equalled 4. Math is comforting that way. Other fields of study require constant updating and changing as we learn more about our world, whether it involves the stars and planets or tiny cells in our body.

Historically, we've had to unlearn a lot of things. The earth is not flat nor does is it the center of the universe. The founding fathers did not intend for the US to be a Christian nation, Autism is not childhood psychosis caused by the mother. Homosexuality is not a choice. Poverty is not caused by poor people not knowing how to save money. Hard work doesn't guarantee success - luck is also a factor. Even good relationships have hard times. College degrees don't guarantee a good job. And your mom isn't the perfect mom you always knew she wasn't. She's imperfect in many ways you have yet to discover.

These days, as I am making a thousand little and big decisions daily in regards to my parents, my grandchildren (no, you can't eat all the cookies for lunch), our finances, what to make for dinner, and how to spend my 15 minutes of free time, the idea of a simple problem and simple solution sounds very appealing. It's not there and won't be.

That's probably just as well. If every problem in life had a logical solution, it would be a lot like a math class. I'm too much of an artist to want everything to be logical. I may have learned to appreciate math, but I wouldn't want to go that far.

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