The Math Waterloo


For the recent Carl Sagan Memorial Blogathon, writer John Scalzi writes about his massive nerd-crush on one of his cultural icons. He also reveals that he wanted to be an astronomer from the age of 11, but that that ambition died after sustained encounters with reality in the form of math classes.

Commenters to Scalzi’s post mention similar experiences with poor math skills taking down their ambitions in the sciences. One calls it his “math Waterloo.”

Of the three who refer in Scalzi’s post and comments to having this experience, Scalzi became a freelance writer and science fiction novelist, one commenter got a law degree and the other commenter appears to have become an illustrator of some sort.

A “math Waterloo.” I guess that’s what I had last semester.

To be clear, I knew that I wanted to be, ideally, a scientist and a science writer, and I was very much aware that doing science might well lie outside my grasp. I wanted the chance to do real science, but I knew that failing that I had something else that I was passionate about, good at, and willling to make a living doing. But to have it revealed to me — slowly, painfully and in great confusion — that I had no real skill at math was far more confusing and more painful than I thought it would be. As I’ve said before, I have failed before, and failed miserably, but I had never failed to understand something. And though my failure was only partial, learning that I had no head for math — a discipline that I really, really wanted to understand deeply and fluidly — was a hard and hurtful first.

Luckily for me I have it on the best authority that you can do chemistry well and still be relatively unremarkable in math. So I’m not quite yet ready to give up all my ideas about doing science of some kind someday, though I do fully and peacefully accept that my greatest gifts lie as a writer. To which most people in my life pretty much say, Duh.

And writing and science, I will observe once again, go beautifully well together. Instead of railing about not being able to do math as well as I’d like, I see myself instead as blessed to have such clear-cut talents and interests. My road has some brambles and rough spots, sure. But it’s still a road — a clear and well-defined passage through life — and I follow it with joy.

3 responses to “The Math Waterloo

  1. Hi,

    About maths … my experience showed me that : don’t resign. I was really bad !!! 4 or 5/10 until end of highschool. In Economic Sciences a teacher explained me what math was used for in a language and with words I could understand and I became in one semester … the leader (in math for financial operations and functions). Don’t throw the towels. As we say in french “ne jette pas le bébé avec l’eau du bain” (don’t throw the baby with the water of the bath). Find yourself the teacher that is good for you and you’ll make it to China.

    Enjoy your day,


  2. Axel. After years of studious and concerted effort, I threw in the towel and have never looked back. For me, it was the right thing to do.

    I thought because I had a certain level of intelligence and the willingness to work hard, I could apply my intelligence like a solvent to any area of study.

    But I learned that people really are different, and that success in maths requires abilities I lack — and that you clearly don’t! Insight and a great teacher certainly is the answer — for some. For me, the answer was coming to accept what I really was good at, and find the pleasure in that. For there is always pleasure in something you do well and with real ease and flow.

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