I am told that algebra is everywhere – it’s in my iPod, beneath the spreadsheet that calculates my car payments, in every corner of my building. This idea freaks me out because I just can’t see it. I sent out a query on my blog last week asking, Who among us in the real world uses algebra? Can you explain how it works?
This is exactly the sort of intellectual innumeracy I have ranted about countless times. The whole concept of the blog (subtitled “A year reliving high school math”) is a demonstration of the low esteem in which math and science are held. To someone who knows and uses math regularly, this whole project is analogous to someone going on tv and saying “Who among us in the real world uses reading? Can you explain how it works?”
Try to imagine a major national paper sponsoring someone to spend “A year reliving high school English”– reading The Catcher in the Rye and The Scarlet Letter and taking vocabulary quizzes. It’s a little hard to picture, isn’t it? Functioning adults are simply expected to have the skills acquired in high school English classes, but somehow, it’s acceptable to not only not know algebra– which is really junior high math, not high school math– it’s perfectly ok to broadcast that fact to the entire world.
In this installment, she does manage to find some alegra in the Real World, via her brother, an entertainment rigger. Who knew that people hanging heavy beams supporting lights for rock concerts needed to use math?
Of course, the situation doesn’t really improve with the discovery of her brother’s use of math. She goes on to give a link to a pdf list of formulae used in the rigging business, and adds a note that betrays another, related, sort of ignorance:
UPDATE: My apologies. I had planned to run a list of diagrams that riggers use that would help put these formulas in context. In the end I could not get permission from the author of the book in which they are published. Sorry to throw this up there without more clues. I’m going to send this post to a few entertainment riggers to see if we can piece together how these formulas are used.
I looked at the list of formulae, which is just a collection of results from simple statics problems. The diagrams that ought to be there would be simple free-body diagrams showing the various tension and weight forces on the loads being suspended. Reverse engineering them would be a little tricky, but I could probably do it if I didn’t need all this pseudoephedrine at the moment.
Here’s my problem with the aside: these diagrams are just pictures. They’re not the products of some secret black art, drawn in the blood of unbaptized infants under the dark of the moon. There’s no reason beyond sheer laziness why any educated person should need to reproduce the exact page from some book. You could knock off a non-infringing copy of the diagrams in much less time than it takes to contact the publisher and be denied permission to reprint them.
But that would require somebody to understand what the diagrams mean. Which really requires a pretty minimal level of cluefulness, but evidently more than could be mustered before posting the article for the entire world to see.
So, not only is she proclaiming her ignorance of junior high school math, she’s proclaiming an ignorance of high school physics. Which is entirely typical, but no less depressing for that.