The Joy of x

X’s…whether a past relationship or something in algebra that you’re trying to solve for, are most often times a source of headache, heartache and frustration. There have been plenty of books written on reconciling the baggage brought about by a past relationship, but surprisingly few written with the intention of shedding a new light on those mathematical unknowns that you were forced to wrestle with in high school.

That actually surprises me because if you ask someone to look back at a past boyfriend or girlfriend they’ll probably be able to recount at least ONE nice memory with him or her. But if you ask somebody to tell you about the time they took calculus you’ll probably be looked at in disgust or boredom. I can’t think of many other phobia’s so pervasive in today’s culture. Even the strongest food aversion catches more breaks than math class.

The current book I’m reading, The Joy of x by Steven Strogatz, seeks to turn the tide on some of that mathematical anxiety (a real thing according to wikipedia) and reintroduces the subject to adults who may look back in despair when they think of trig functions or word problems. The book starts at the most fundamental building blocks even teaching why there’s more to the seemingly obvious idea that 3×7 is the same thing as 7×3. Strogatz is able to achieve what very few others can to do and take complex, abstract ideas and pare them down into something a 3rd grader can digest. I find it beautiful when the smartest minds care to meet people at eye level rather than speak pompously above anyone without a PhD.

On a personal level, I deal with this aversion all of the time. When I tell somebody that I majored in math or that I do “mathy business things” in my current occupation, I’m usually met with a look like I’m an alien from another planet. But in my opinion the subject is elegant and beautiful and significant change needs to be made in our education system in order for other students to see it that way.

A huge step in the right direction starts with answering one question…”why?”. Rather than forcing students to grapple with equations out of the gate, there should be time spent answering the two biggest roadblocks facing somebody who takes on a math class:

  1. Why am I learning this?
  2. Why does all of this stuff work? (hint, it doesn’t come out of thin air and much of it is grounded in intuition)

When I got to college I struggled badly in my math classes, going so far as to fail my second quarter calculus class. As somebody who was being referred to as a math wiz just one year before, you can imagine my world spinning a bit. But whether it was ego or just plain stubbornness, I stuck it out and got through those “weeder-out classes”.

I can thank Professor David Weisbart for reinvigorating a love for the subject that was slowly dying. It was not until I got to his  class called Analysis that everything clicked for me. Dave, as I now call him, is one of those aforementioned guys who is a math genius but can package a concept and communicate it in a way that doesn’t sound intimidating. Just as important in my future success as a math major, this was the “why” class. And I learned that almost all of the “why’s” are grounded in intuition and not handed down in mythical doctrine etched on stone tablets. It should not take 15 years of school and half a math degree to get to the “why” class. And with books like The Joy of x, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in thinking so either.

Thank you to my 4th grade math teacher Mr. T, my 12th grade calc teacher Mr. Kemple and my friend and college professor David Weisbart for helping me to find joy in x during each stage of my formal education.


For someone else doing great things to alter math education check out Dan Meyer’s famous TED Talk: Math Class Needs a Makeover.

And if you’re interested in seeing mathematical beauty in action watch Steven Strogatz: The Science of Sync.


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