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Lynn Hummel: Aware of math this month

You knew that April was Mathematics Awareness Month didn’t you? Well, I didn’t, and I’m glad I found out before April slipped away without me being aware of math awareness.

Let me confess that if you stopped 100 adults on the street and gave them a basic bonehead math test, 99 would get a higher mark than me. The one guy below me doesn’t know his phone number or the date of his birthday. Let me confess further, that despite a record of being a polite, attentive student, (trust me on this) I was once kicked out of a math class by a teacher I liked and respected and I think he liked and respected me. I can’t honestly remember why — it just didn’t add up.

Math is serious business. In 1986 somebody woke up to the fact that in spite of the growing importance of mathematics to our economy and society in medicine, computer science, space exploration, skilled trades, business, defense and government, enrollment in the study of mathematics was declining. So every year in April there is a serious effort to wake us up to the need for more good minds to study math. The theme is different every year. For 2014, the theme is “Mathematics, Magic and Mystery,” and the promoters are devising games, puzzles and magic for each day of the month to rouse our curiosity and interests. In past years, the themes have included emphasis on mathematics in art, voting, climate, sports, the Internet, the environment and many others.

I was once enrolled in an economics class intending to study supply, demand, grain, oil, lumber, autos and trade. From day one, this young, probably brilliant, professor was writing long formulas on the board without explaining what they meant. Everybody in the class seemed to know what she was talking about. I wrote them down faithfully while waiting for some key to make sense of this foreign language. Then one day she stopped mid-lecture, and said, “Let’s see, how can I explain this to those of you who haven’t studied calculus?” Bingo. She was talking about me. What does calculus have to do with economics? I got out of that class so fast I was stepping on toes and knocking desks over.

To me, the most amazing math exercise is the simplest. Let’s say I want to save money in April. On April 1st, I save a penny. Then every day I double the total of what I saved the day before. You know: 1¢, 2¢, 4¢, 8¢, 16¢, etc. Do you realize that 1¢ doubled for 30 days will equal $5,368,708.00 after the April 30th deposit? How can that be? That’s not even compound interest. If you did it in May with 31 days, the total would be over $10 million.

Serious mathematicians calculate out into infinity. In the mid-16th century, a great mathematician named Leonard Euler deduced a formula that an infinite sum, represented by S, can be described as S= - 1/12. History relates that it took another century for mathematicians to work out the details. But Niels Abel, a famous Norwegian mathematician, was best known for having proved the impossibility of solving the general fifth degree of polynomial equations (expressing an infinite sum in an actual number). Abel said “The divergent series are the invention of the devil.”

A good math teacher reading that last paragraph would probably say that the writer of this column has no idea what he’s talking about — he has it all wrong. I admit in advance that I don’t know what I’m talking about and it is possible I have it all wrong. I respect good math teachers although I never understood them. I had a good math teacher and so did my son, Buckwheat. Once when Buck was home, we got into a disagreement about the temperature of water just below the ice on a frozen lake. To settle the question, we called his math/physics teacher, Mr. Welke, who explained the whole thing very carefully and proved that my son knew more about math and physics then his dad.

The moral of this story is this: respect your math teacher, behave in class, listen to your children who probably know more than you do, and be aware of the importance of mathematics in our everyday lives.