Pyracantha of Electron Blue blogged about her math issues.
I’ve got more than my share myself, so I wrote her some encouragement. Math can frustrate people and take them down like almost nothing else. That’s why the very important and very beautiful field of mathematics has acquired such an unpleasant reputation. It’s challenging and somehow unlike any other field of study. And MATH TAKES WORK.
Even I hate math sometimes. (More and more lately…) There’s only so much failure and frustration a person can take.
Well, Pyracantha wrote me back. And I wrote her back. And I think I need to save the last piece of our correspondence. I publish it here for the benefit of everyone who’s ever tried to convince herself that she just can’t do math.
First off, I explained to Pyracantha that IMO most mistakes studious students make in tests are stupid errors (arithmetic errors, etc.) and errors in copying (e.g. writing a plus where a minus really was).
> Thanks for the encouragement. I was wondering
> whether I had gotten stupid or something. I’m glad
> know that my experiences are common.
They’re more than common. I’d call them unavoidable, something we all learn to look out for. Recently I promised myself to spend an extra 10 minutes of every test just looking for dumb errors — I failed my last exam mostly because of not following directions correctly
and making stupid mistakes. (OK, OK that and being bad in math and in some parts of the test totally not knowing what the fuck I was doing. Damn you, cylindrical shells!)
My math prof said to me the other day that the only math mistakes he makes anymore are simple, stupid errors. There’s just no avoiding them.
I think that strong mathematical ability and the ability to do simple math ops without error are probably unrelated for the most part. And really, part of math success is just copying things right! I am a bad one for copying signs and problems wrong.
> I somehow
> that “real” mathematicians are these human computers
> who could recite 1000 primes at age 3 and never make
> “clerical” mistakes.
Oh, wasn’t there a post in CV about how even physicists can’t do simple math sometimes? For YEARS now in my math classes I have seen people with advanced degrees in math four days a week. And they make silly errors sometimes, and we students correct them, and we all know it’s just part of being human and doing math. No one gets embarassed… Even math Ph.D.s make math mistakes. Never in their calculus, mind you, but occasionally in their arithmetic and copying! It’s the same innocent, unavoidable error as making a typo in your typing.
> I am glad that there is someone
> else like yourself who is struggling with learning
> math and science at an “advanced” age.
I would have struggled with math at any age and succeeded in chemistry at any age. I don’t feel like my math abilities have decreased with age, though I know that’s not what you’re saying. I just feel like I have something to contribute to the world of science beyond my poor ability to do higher math.
I had a big realization just yesterday. I was struggling in the college math lab with an “easy” (HA HA) Fourier series problem. The math lab tutor lost patience with me, and made a really somewhat mean remark about my poor trig knowledge. I spent the ten minutes or so pretending to do homework while blinking back tears, feeling inadequate and useless. Hopeless. There can be a lot of hopelessness in the life of a student who is confounded by math.
But if I’ve learned ANYTHING in college, it’s DON’T GIVE UP. Honestly. That’s the big message at this point.
I went to the computer lab for some emotional privacy, got my wits together, surfed online for some very cheering stories of successful older college students, and by GOD went back to that problem.
I asked for help from my same math lab friend, who had not meant to hurt my feelings. Together we worked the problem out. (I think.)
He asked me what I was pursuing a degree in. I sighed deeply, feeling shame and a terrible sadness. “Well, I used to think chemistry, until I realized how poor my math skills
He laughed. “You don’t need to be good in math to do chemistry!” And a man with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and a Ph.D. in Mathematics would know.
I’ve asked other friends with Ph.D.’s how much higher math they’ve really used in their field, and SHOCKINGLY, I get the same answer EVERY TIME: Hardly any. My friend the retired industrial chemist wrote ONE differential equation his whole career.
Now I know that physics, not chemistry, is your area of interest. And strong math ability IS a requirement in physics. And learning math is one of the mental hurdles students face as they receive an education in the sciences.
But I believe that one needn’t be a math genius to contribute good science to this world. I believe that there are other attributes of value within the science professions, like vision, perseverance, creativity, the capacity for hard work, the ability to envision and conceptualize, the ability to dream up experiments, etc. etc. etc. Math skills help, but so do other skills. It’s a myth that only math geniuses are allowed into the world of science. I find lately that my life is rife with stupid misconceptions about science and scientists. Our whole culture is, I suppose. Misconceptions will not keep me from my dreams.
My name is Jennifer, and I suck in math, and it is going to be OK.