Why I Can No Longer Love Math

Every day for eight hours (give or take) I stare at a program called MATLAB. MATLAB R2012b, to be exact. For a programming language, it has relatively simple syntax, I suppose, although I’m rather inexperienced and often find myself searching fruitlessly through documentation trying to figure out how to multiply two things together. It’s the simple things I can never find in the help menu, probably because the software developers didn’t think idiots like me would be trying to use their program.

As a student of pure, theoretical mathematics, I can safely say that I’ve been exposed to many extremely confusing concepts. The problem is that I’m simply not very practical-minded. While I can usually grasp complex theories, I am useless when it comes to their applications. I like formulas. I have a photographic memory, so I can memorize them and recall them very quickly. But ask me what they mean, and I will stare at you like you’re growing an extra arm out of your forehead. Physics is lost on me. Chemistry, forget it. Although I did break the record in chem class for blowing up the greatest number of crucibles, so that could also have something to do with my aversion to lab science.

I can’t troubleshoot. I can orthonormalize matrices, diagram Galois fields, and perform high-degree Taylor expansions on demand, but no matter how many times you explain it to me, I will never understand WHY I’m doing those things. And I will do them much slower than MATLAB would. So in reality, I’m not really very helpful to have around. I’m like the dusty old computer in your parents’ basement, only with way more potential for human error.

See, the thing I always loved about math was that every problem had a solution. There was the question, and there was THE answer. I would use a formula, plug in some numbers, and what I came up with was either right or wrong. It didn’t include a whole lot of guesswork or creative invention. It just sort of, you know, WAS. Addition, multiplication, integration, graphical analysis…there was one way to do it, there was one answer, and there was a sense of certainty and security in knowing that. At some point as my education level climbed, that stopped being true. And then I stopped loving math.

Like a lot of people, I crave the realm of black-and-white. I want every problem to have exactly one correct solution, and I want it to be a quick fix. Subtract A from B. Solve for x. I want "42" to actually be the answer to the life, the universe, and everything.

I want someone to say, "Gwen, if you do x, y, and z, you’ll be happy. If you weigh k pounds, you will feel good about yourself. Your purpose in life is p + q + s." But life is not so easy.

I think MATLAB and I are a lot alike. We can store all kinds of functions and data, run scripts and generate output. But when you give us a complicated problem without giving us the necessary information to solve it, we return errors. Like,

">> find(happiness)
Undefined function or variable ‘happiness’."

Don’t expect us to make things happen without telling us how.

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