Dear Dave

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Maths & Maturity

Dear Dave,

I've forgotten more maths than most people ever learn.

Once upon a time, I could utilise vector calculus, execute Fourier transforms and do all kinds of wizardry armed only with a pencil, paper and a selection of Greek letters. Using the four years of knowledge I accumulated studying for my physics degree, I could prove any number of theorems involving everything from electro-magnetism to the motion of stars. Some of these calculations involved assuming that the Earth is flat, others that it's a perfect sphere and a select few required both assumptions, a steady hand and a touch of dark magic.

Happily, my physics skillz were such that I didn't get confused and accidentally make time run backwards or anything unfortunate like that. (That happened down the corridor once. Three of my mates lost a minus sign somewhere, found themselves in 1985, nearly erased their own existences by convincing their younger selves to get trendy haircuts and unwittingly ended up inventing Back to the Future. It was messy.)

That was a long time ago. Now my maths is a little rusty. Basic trigonometry is a struggle.

"That's a right angle," I said, pointing to one corner of a tangle of straight lines in my nephew Ned's homework book. He was sitting at our kitchen table, his head in his hands, trying to solve the problem by sheer force of squinting at it.

Somewhere else in the house, there was a shriek and a thud.

"Everyone OK?" I called up the stairs to the lounge.

"Yes!" called back Lewis, as if surprised I was asking. "Yes," sighed Fraser, seemingly bored by having to give even that much of an answer.

There was a pause. "No," whimpered Marie. "The sofa was bad. It made me fall over."

"Er..." I said, contemplating going to check on them. "Are you all right, though?"

"Yes," she groaned. "I'll put the stool back now."

"Good," I said, deciding it was best not to know what she was talking about. "Be careful. I'll be up in a few minutes."

"OK," muttered Lewis and Marie in unison. Fraser didn't reply. Since this was a better response rate than normal, I left them to it and went back to the kitchen.

"I don't get it," said Ned, now squinting so hard it had to be making his forehead hurt. "How's it a right angle?"

I picked up a pencil and added a couple more lines to the tangle. "Does that help?"

He leant in close to the page, staring at the diagram, his nose almost touching the paper. "No," he said.

"Ah," I said, resisting the urge to yell, "It's totally obviously a right angle. Are you blind?" I felt that might not be too helpful. Besides, if he concentrated any harder, his eyes would clamp shut and his brain would shoot out his ears. I pointed elsewhere on the diagram. "It's a right angle because this is a right angle."

"How's that?" he said, one eye closing as he peered where I'd indicated.

I stood behind him with a couple of mugs, ready to catch any grey matter that tried to abandon ship. "It says so in the question. Those lines are perpendicular."

"What's that mean?"

"That it's a right angle."


It was slow going but we persevered. Ned has rather strong motivation in that his dad's going to pack him off to a remote, military-style boarding school if his science grades don't improve. They'll make him take a cold shower and then force him to do algebra while being chased over the moors by a pack of Alsatians. Having me tutor him might be painful but it has to be better than that. He's not stupid. He simply can't seem to get to grips with equations.

We finished the question and took a break while I checked on the kids. The boys were playing computer games; the girl was filling a Little Mermaid sleeping bag with balloons while wearing two dozen items of pink, sparkly jewellery. I made a mental note to talk to them about gender stereotypes later and then sneaked back downstairs before they noticed I was there.

"What's the point of maths?" said Ned when I returned. He'd found the biscuit tin and was busy emptying it.

I grabbed a chocolate digestive while there was still time and considered the question. At a certain level, maths is vital to understanding the working of the universe. I couldn't really see Ned ever reaching that level, however. At another level, it's the basis of engineering, construction and making Lara Croft wobble in a pleasing fashion. I felt Ned could appreciate these applications but, again, they were likely to always be beyond him. He wasn't so much asking about the uses of maths, he was wondering what any of them had to do with him.

A practical demonstration was in order.

I reached into the pile of our recent mail and pulled out a credit card bill, intending to hand it over and ask, "Why do we pay this off in full each month rather than making the minimum payment?" Then I realised that:
  • (a) It had my credit card number on it.
  • (b) It listed a large purchase from HMV which he was bound to query.
The former was too much temptation to put in the way of a fifteen-year-old boy. There was a chance he'd make for Mexico and I'd never see him again. The latter might lead him to discover I was hiding ten series of Stargate SG-1 in the cleaning cupboard. If he found those, I might never be able to get him to leave. Neither of these scenarios was ideal (nor easy to explain to my wife).

I played it safe and gave him a mortgage statement instead. "Why are we paying this over fifteen years rather than twenty-five, even though the monthly payments are much larger that way?" I asked.

Ned screwed up his face. "'Cos it's done quicker?"

"Yeah... and?"


"That's the point of maths," I said, circling some relevant numbers. "Try and figure out how much it costs in total interest over the different lengths of time."

Glumly, Ned set to work.

I suddenly felt horribly mature. I was forcing him to learn about mortgages. Normally we talk about computer games or films or I listen to him complain about his parents. We're close to being equals in those conversations. I'm nearly twenty years older than him but I'm more than ten years younger than his dad, Chris. I can often relate to Ned more easily than my sister-in-law's husband. Frankly, I usually choose too. I like to think of myself as the not-totally-uncool uncle.

Discussing compound interest didn't sit well with this image. I may wear the same style of clothes I wore in 1997 and they may, in a few instances, even be the same clothes, but it's becoming harder to disguise the fact I'm getting old.

I wonder how Ned actually sees me?

In first year at university, I did a theology course out of a mix of interest and a need to fill a gap in my timetable. It was full of mature students - middle-aged people who'd gone back to university to expand their minds and change the direction of their lives. (This was in contrast to the rest of us who were there to have a good time for four years while putting off giving our lives direction.) As such, they did all kinds of annoying things like read books, prepare for seminars and complain that the word limit for essays was too small.

The physics department didn't have many mature students. Maths is enlightening, beautiful and important. Unfortunately, it's also hard to follow and full of Greek letters. It's not ideal for discussing while drinking coffee in street caf├ęs. (When mathematicians try it, waiters berate them about the diagrams sketched on the table with marker pen and natives of Bohemia laugh at their poor dress sense and ignorance of social conventions.) Few people get to a certain age, decide they don't like the way they're headed and think to themselves, 'Yes, I see it now! My life simply doesn't contain enough maths...'

In fact, we had just the one older student. He had a sign taped to the door of his room which read, 'Within lies the difference between age and maturity.' In general, he blended in with the eighteen-year-olds around him. Only the wrinkles and a touch of sense gave him away.

Another month and I'll be thirty-five, which is roughly the age he was at the time. I don't imagine I'd blend quite so well, however. The kids have blown it for me. On the one hand, I'd be telling the teenagers to look where they were going and to eat their food nicely. On the other, I'd be intimidated by their energy and confidence.

In some ways, I feel less mature than I did when I was a teenager. After Fraser arrived, I was sent a handbook on being a parent. I'm still waiting for the one on being an adult.

As we did sums, I thought about asking Ned his opinion of me but I didn't dare. I preferred to hang onto my not-totally-uncool illusions. That level of communication is probably beyond him for now, anyway. He'd have grunted something non-committal and then hoped for a change of subject. If I'd forced him to come up with a proper answer, the squinting would have caused permanent damage to his eyebrows and I'd definitely have needed those mugs.

We struggled with the mortgage calculations. They were harder than I was expecting and I'm not sure we got them right. Nevertheless they gave some idea of the huge pile of cash that my bank won't be getting. Ned was impressed by the number but he still wasn't convinced about his need for maths. Somehow, he knew that we'd have been much quicker logging on to a financial services website and using one of their widgets.

"Isn't this on the internet?" he said.

I was tired and my patience was wearing thin. (I've become crotchety in my old age.) "Yes," I snapped, "but someone has to write the internet, other people need to be able to point out their mistakes in great detail, someone else needs to blame the government, yet more people need to blame immigrants, someone needs to correct their grammar, others need to blame the government for immigrants and you need to know why they're all wrong and escape before the Star Trek fans arrive."


I took a deep breath. We'd made some progress but there was no point pushing it. "Biscuit?" I said, finding another packet. It was time to call it a day. "Played any good games recently?"

Before he could reply, there was another shriek and thump from upstairs. "The sofa's being bad again, Daddy!" yelled Marie. "Come and tell it to stop."

I headed to investigate, nonchalantly shoving an entire chocolate digestive in my mouth in one go as I went. Ned looked on in awe - there's no way his dad would ever do anything like that. It may not have been exactly cool but it wasn't totally uncool either. His reaction gave me hope that I can come across as mature without merely seeming old.

I didn't let on that the only reason I hadn't eaten the biscuit normally was to avoid making crumbs.

Still, maybe I haven't entirely turned into a grumpy, shrivelled husk yet. Maybe I can keep the balance between age and maturity for another year, and hold off on a mid-life crisis until Marie's at school. With the rest I'll get then, I might be able to avoid one altogether.

This would be for the best. Who knows what might happen otherwise?

With my luck, I might decide my life simply doesn't contain enough maths.

I'm not sure I'm ready for that...

Yours in a woman's world,



JenK said...

Funny... I eat my cookies like that so the kids won't see and I won't have to share. Priorities.

I know I lost the age battle the last time my Sister in law came over and I noticed how annoying twenty one year olds are. Always talking about boys and never being able to figure out why their credit card bills keep going up even thought they make the minimum payments. Shoot me now before I start taking senior cruises to Reno to play the nickle slots. I'm thisclose.

DadsDinner said...

I used to hide biscuits that way until the day Sprog2 came into the kitchen a split second after I'd popped one in my mouth. He then proceeded to tell me all about level 3 of his game in great detail. Despite the fact that my only response was to grunt and nod, he kept me there for several minutes, my cheeks bulging like a hamster.

Now I make sure the kids are on a different floor of the house before I have a crafty snack (and I buy small biscuits which I can eat very fast).