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“Math: Not Even Once” or “Things You Really Can’t Do in Math… Even Once!” December 26, 2013

Filed under: Education,Math — acgheen @ 12:00 am
Tags: , ,

“This is your worst subject?” my business professor asked, nodding towards the math classroom.

I nodded rather sheepishly, a bit glad that she didn’t know about my math-centric business background.

“Then I’m impressed,” she replied.  “I’ve been looking over your test while we talked and I could be wrong, but I think you got 100%!”

I felt something inside of me start to glow.  It hadn’t been an easy journey, yet I had to admit that maybe math wasn’t my worst subject anymore.

Unfortunately, this left me with a conundrum.  For weeks, I’d been repeating the slogan, “Math: not even once.”  The phrase was too good to give up, so surely there had to be another way to apply it.  And I found just that in the work of Pierre de Fermat (1601?-1665), a French lawyer who appears to have engaged in mathematical exercises “just for the fun of it”.  His hobby led to some incredible breakthroughs in the field of mathematics (proof that “amateur” is not synonymous with “inept”) and is best known for his contributions to calculus.

According to Fermat, there are two mathematical operations which simply cannot be done… even once.  The first is separating a single cube into two cubes.  Go ahead.  Try it.  It really is impossible!  The second is separating, “a fourth power into two fourth powers, or in general, any power higher than the second, into two like powers.”  (I’d challenge you to try this too, but despite the fact that I do find some math to be enjoyable, I’m not quite ready to tackle this one!)[1]

So what did I learn from all of this?  Quite simply that sometimes in life, what we tell ourselves has more to do with our perceptions of reality than what actually is.  And many times, it’s our ability to question these perceptions (and carefully weigh their alternatives) which leads to our failure or success.  While it’s unlikely that I’ll ever have the computational genius of Fermat, one thing is certain: math and I are not the enemies I thought we were.

[1] While I’d love to take credit for discovering this amazing connection between the popular “Meth: Not Even Once” commercial and Fermi’s last theorem, I have to give credit to the folks on zazzle.com where you can purchase a t-shirt with the theorem in Latin.


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