Math Phobic?

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By Nicole Chardenet


Calvin and Hobbes were right. Mathematics isn't a science, it's a religion.

No, I take that back. It's a mind-numbing, will-sapping CULT!

I'm taking Intermediate Algebra. Why? Good question. It's so I can get into Pre-Calculus next semester. Why on earth would I want to do that? Well, so I don't choke in Calculus. And why on earth would I want to take that? So's I can get into the Computer Science graduate program of my choice. And I'll be darned if I know how any of this will ever be useful, since I expect once I get a job in my chosen field, all I'll ever have to do is answer to employees whose computers have locked up by saying, "Oh, that's a Windows bug. Reboot your computer!"

Now keep in mind, I'm the world's most arithmaphobic carbon-based life form. I refuse to deal with irrational numbers until they've calmed down and I won't take a job that requires me to do any clerical work (and I once lost a temp job because the fools actually trusted me with a column of numbers). And just thinking about quadratic equations makes me break out in hives. And did I mention I haven't had an algebra class in 18 years?

So August was Cram Month for me as I checked a book on elementary algebra out of the library and completed it in a month. And I have to admit, once I reviewed a lot of it it came back to me. Well, mostly the memories of me crying on my father's shoulder and insisting, "This is STUPID! I can't DO this! What am I ever going to need this for?"

Fortunately, I have a friend who's a very good algebra tutor. And very patient. I mean REALLY patient. He doesn't get mad when he says, "Now, how do you reduce a radical?" and I giggle, "I don't know, throw him in jail? Take away his drug stash?"

The thing that gets me, though, is just how close to a faith-based belief system math really is. I used to hang out on a computer conference where the Christians and other deists battled the atheists in a no-holds-barred-take-no-prisoners duel to the death. The atheists were usually comprised of scientists or people in technological fields who didn't believe in anything except that which had already been extensively documented in a laboratory somewhere. They always made fun of the deists for believing in "imaginary superfriends" and relying on "faith".

Oh gods, how I wish I'd known then what I know now!

I was working on my algebra this summer when I got to a problem that gave a positive answer for multiplying two negative numbers. Now, as any freshman algebra student can tell you, multiplying negative numbers yields a positive. (Negative numbers, by the way, are numbers in serious need of therapy.) The correct answer, according to the book, was a negative one.

"How can that be?" I asked my tutor. "Is that a typo?"

"No, that's correct," he said. "You haven't learned about this yet. It's an imaginary number."


"Yes, but you probably won't get those until you get to trigonometry."

"Wait a minute. Let me see if I've got this straight. Math, an exact science, is asking me to believe in a number that can't possibly exist."


"And mathematicians and scientists all over the world are are cool with this."


"So what you're telling me is skeptical-minded scientists who laugh at the concept of God are perfectly comfortable believing in imaginary supernumbers?"

He grinned. "Right."

"Then why do they always yell at US for believing in God?"

"Because a faith in God won't help them build bridges, and the use of imaginary numbers will."

"They use imaginary numbers to build BRIDGES?"


It's a good thing I have a belief in God, because I'm gonna need it the next time I drive over a bridge!

Just last week we were going over graphing equations on a Cartesian coordinate system and function notation. And I just wasn't getting the difference between the two. To me it looked like we were doing the exact same stuff.

My tutor tried to explain it to me, but couldn't. Yes, he agreed, when you're trying to find y=x+2 you pick a number for x and solve for y. Or vice versa. Which was exactly what you do when f(x)=x+2. But how was this different?

"It just is," he said. "In some cases it's more accurate to say that f is a function of x."

That wasn't a good enough answer for me. I don't mind learning all this crap if I know that someone, somewhere in the galaxy has an actual use for it. Otherwise, I begin to suspect that math is just one gigantic conspiracy created by unsocialized pencil-necked little geeks who are getting the rest of us back for giving them wedgies and not going to the prom with them when we were younger.

"I don't know how else to explain it to you, and I don't know that your teacher could, either," he replied. "I just accepted this when I was in college; I never questioned it."

"Oh great. So what you're telling me is that these mind-sapping math gurus are teaching us all to just do as we're told and not question anything, is that it?"

"Well, I never questioned it. And your teacher probably never did, either."

"Math isn't just a religion, it's a bloody CULT!" I shouted. "If I ran off to join the Rajneesh, shaved my head, and sold flowers in an airport my parents woulld hire someone to kidnap and deprogram me. But I can just mindlessly ACCEPT any silly fool notion they sell me in algebra class--and God only knows WHAT they'll have me doing in Calculus--sacrificing my calculator to an imaginary number, I suppose--and no one questions it a bit!"

I really don't know how long I'm going to last with this math business. Maybe I won't be a computer science student after all; maybe I'll just run off and form my own religion, like L. Ron Hubbard did with Scientology.

And if you see me in an airport ranting in a corner about how you have to turn your life over to pretend polynomials TODAY, or risk the fires of numerical illiteracy, I'd appreciate it if you'd drop a dollar into my tambourine. Those car payments on my Ferrari are sure to be expensive!

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