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Applied Mathematics

  • Sara Jones Home-School Grad and New Mother
  • Published Aug 29, 2007
Applied Mathematics

If I'm ever at a loss for what to write, I draw on the author's great resource: suffering. And nothing makes me suffer more than math.

My family isn't a math-minded family.

Now, I usually don't like statements like that. People tend to use them as excuses. "I just couldn't stay home all the time with my family. I'm a people-person, you know?" (Congratulations - and your family is made up of nonpeople?) "I just can't get that class. I'm a hands-on kind of learner." (Congratulations - as soon as you develop a hands-on course for diagramming sentences, let me know.) So I try to be careful when I explain to people my weaker areas; I try not to make lame excuses. It is after years of observation and consideration that I conclude: My family isn't a math-minded family.

It's true that two of my brothers are computer nerds. They like to talk about megabytes and Pentium chips and read Dilbert. And my older sister can tally up a Scrabble score at a glance. But by and large, textbook math is not our strongest point. I might even say that, on a scale of one to ten, our math abilities rank somewhere around ... um ... ten minus eight ... wait, is it plus four? ... anyway, it's not our strongest point.

I think it's because we look beyond the surface problem. For instance, just the other day I came across a basic math problem. "Town A's population is 6,800. Town B's population is 4,200. If Town A's population is decreasing by 120 every year, and Town B's population is increasing by 80 every year, in how many years will their populations be equal?" I instantly comprehended the first step to solving the problem: Find out why so many people were leaving Town A every year. Maybe they were going to Town B. And all I could concentrate on was creating tourist billings for Town A to help salvage the population.

And then there are the ones about the area of triangles and "how many boxes measuring 6 cubic inches could fit into a shed 45 feet by 2 feet?" My interest tapers off into the negatives. It makes no sense to me to work such a problem, because, obviously, you aren't going to cram that many boxes into a shed; you've got to have some way to open the door.

That, I suppose, is my major hang-up when it comes to math. Most of it just doesn't seem to apply to my daily life. (I'm ignoring remarks about how my daily life would require some unorthodox formulas.) I've considered compiling a math textbook specifically for myself and my family. A typical problem in my Family Arithmetic Book would run something like this:

Three sisters, L., S., and R., all get up at the same time on Sunday morning to go to their church's 8:30 service. They wear the same amount of makeup and same number of clothing articles. If each one gets up at 7:45, how long does it take each one of them to get ready?

The formula for solving this problem is complex. First, you must divide the three girls between two bathrooms, only one of which has the makeup and toothbrushes in it. You also have to take into account the position and diameter of the hole in the ankle of S.'s white stockings and the accuracy of her mother's eye in catching it before they leave the house. Don't forget to calculate the probability of finding the right pair of white shoes among twenty-three pairs of shoes in the closet (most of which are L.'s). Subtract R.'s favorite barrette from the bathroom. The real problem is not how long it takes them to get ready, but whether they can make it to church in any sort of spirit of Christian charity. (To their credit, they usually do.)

The Family Arithmetic Book would include other areas of math, including:

Force and Mass Calculations: A family is having an Easter-egg hunt. If a pink Easter egg is placed on a concrete block, and N. drops a block weighing 10 pounds on top of the egg, what will be left? (The answer, of course, is an enduring family memory of one of the best hiding places that we've discovered yet for Easter eggs.)

Time and Distance: L., proving an experiment she learned in a physics class, demonstrated that a person can squeeze an egg lengthwise in the hand without breaking the shell. If L. then says, "Look, you can even do it with both hands," how long will it take her to clean up the egg yolk all over herself and the kitchen, and how far down the family line will this story travel?

Yes, I've concluded, if only math were designed to reflect and apply to daily life, it would pose no obstacle to my family. Addition: how many spoonfuls of water-and-confectioner's-sugar icing does it take to make Lauren and Jamie sick? (Answer: They don't like to talk about it). Subtraction: if Neil, Matt, Jamie, Lauren, and Sara get off the bus together, how many walk down the driveway together? (Answer: Four, since one of the older ones will say something to make Sara mad, just to see her go into dramatics and run down the driveway). Multiplication, division ... the possibilities are like numbers themselves - infinite.

The Family Arithmetic Book would have a much more important use than just education. (I'm ignoring inquiries as to where I detect any educational use in the book in the first place.) Like all families, mine has difficulties now and then; but in compiling material for my book, I realized that it's because of my family that I have the blessing of knowing the answer to a problem like the following:

A mother with five children marries a man with one son. Eventually, each son marries a wife. Each of these couples has at least one child. How many families are represented in all?

Answer: One.