Maths: what do you think when you see the word?, asks Colm O'Regan.
IS it a vague memory of a double maths in a stultifying classroom with radiators on the winter-setting?
Or is it a catchphrase? Multiply down by the power, reduce the power by one. BOMDAS! Always. Start. On. The left hand. Side. The square of the hypotenuse …
Was it the books? The friendly man making number soup on Busy at Maths or the unforgiving secondary school books that gave NO EXPLANATION WHATSOEVER about why any of this was ANY USE. Or was it your copy of the log tables? A booklet so worn it looked like monks were the first to use it. I feel nostalgic for log tables. They were never part of the school-books protection racket. (Say buddy, that’s a nice second hand text book your older sibling has there. Shame if someone were to — I dunno — update the booklist so you couldn’t use it.
Or maybe it was the discussion about ‘dropping down to pass’. It reminded me of the bit in the quiz show, The Chase, when the Chaser offers you more money to move closer to them. But it increases the danger and could leave you with nothing and no time to study irregular verbs. And teachers and parents pleading with you. “We need you back here Brian, take the 1000.”
Well this week is Maths Week. And it’s about none of that. It’s a week full of interesting and entertaining events based on maths. And I’m sure it wasn’t around when we were filling boxy copies or increasing the power by one and dividing down by the new power. I don’t remember any ‘events’.
And I like maths. I’m one of those people who buys books on the “This will make you smarter” table in the bookshop but can’t quite get round to finishing them because I’m too stupid. The world is full of people who were convinced by themselves or others that maths just wasn’t for them. But maths is just the basis for absolutely everything. One day while avoiding work I read an article about why 137 is the secret to life, the universe and everything. Basically there’s a number that dictates why atoms even exist. And it’s roughly 137 and if it was 138 or a million or any other number, probably nothing would exist. Or we would walk on the ceiling and eat pencils dipped in mercury.
Isn’t that dizzying? That everything might be due to one number. And there’s all sorts of other mad things. Like Euler’s equation, which says that e to the power of pi TIMES i PLUS 1 is equal to zero. Obvs. You don’t need to know anything about that but consider how mad it is that e, the magic number that turns up in interest rates, light and sound, pi the circle fella, i is a complex number— don’t ask but she’s kind of a big deal — 1 and zero who seem fairly innocuous but are fairly handy in a fight, ALL turn up in the one sentence? Like the Avengers without a contrived plotline.
What a shame this area of knowledge that rules everything should leave people afraid. Not only is there so much beauty in the mad stuff, there is so much utility in the easy stuff. We are surrounded by legislators, bookies, tech-gods, demagogues who rely on us being easily bamboozled by numbers so they can hide their nonsense or tricks or lack of ability. When they can say “we have spent BILLUNS on the problem” safe in the knowledge a lot of us won’t say “hang on a second there…”
Maths, sums, numbers — in the sea of deep fakery, Boris-style bullshit — might be one of the few truths left. It’s more than BOMDAS.
For more see mathsweek.ie. Colm is recording a mathsy episode of his show Colm O’Regan Wants a Word at RTE Radio studios tonight 7.30. email email@example.com for tickets.