Thursday, March 20, 2008

in which our heroes unleash the awesome power of maths

I was helping a student plan a project the other day. He wanted to make a set of nesting boxes that could be pulled up by a string to make a tower. My job was to show him the best way to make it so that it worked, how to cut a straight edge, how to glue it into proper right angles without drowning it in glue, and how to construct the boxes in such a way that they fitted together after covering with collage. Like all making, it takes a bit of planning.

Me: How's your high school maths?

Him: Pretty shonky, like most art students.

Me: Tell me about it. If my maths teacher could see me now, he'd drop off his perch in shock.* Who was to know book-making and letterpress uses so much maths?

Him: Yeah (laughs nervously).

Me: Seriously, to make this work, we need to plan it. You can't just whip up a few boxes and expect them to interact. The simplest outcome sometimes takes a lot of thinking and calculation and practicing. Don't expect this set of boxes to be the final outcome; this is where the problems will rear their ugly heads, and we will tame them as they arise.

Him: OK!

Me: We need a formula!

Him: o..k..a..y....

Me: Watch this: you've made the first (smallest) box, right? Now:

(base of box) + (space between boxes x 2) + (thickness of boxboard x 2) = base of next box

The only variable is the space between the boxes, because your collage might be thicker on some of them. You have to measure each one as you make it.

Him: Oh my god, that's...

Me: That's algebra!

Him: You mean...

Me: Yes! Amazingly, that shit is actually applicable! Don't you wish they'd told us that at school?

Him: YEAH!

We stand and gaze at the formula lovingly for a minute.

*My maths teacher told me I'd be useless in the real world. "Duckie",** he'd say, slapping his forehead in despair, "what is your problem?" Numerically dyslexic, I'd tell him. It was just all too abstract. I got 27% for my HSC maths, and a lot of that was writing the formulas down randomly through the paper and not applying them. I must have hit a few spots. Still, I'm starting to feel better about numbers the older I get, but only about the ones that behave themselves.

**Names have been changed to hide my awful high school nickname protect the innocent.


Tim said...

There's still no real world use for surds, though. I was certain of that in Year 10 and I'm certain of it now.

JahTeh said...

My sister can add up long columns of numbers in her head, I, on the other hand, have to break them up in blocks of five and write it down.

The quilt tops I've just sewn all had one square short. I can't get the hang of 3 across and 4 down adding up to......I've forgotten already.

fifi said...

aaagh, surds, turds,....I got 42% myself. pft.

Try explaining the golden mean as an "innumerate"..

I am very impressed with the formula.

Dean said...

Numerical dyslexia - I'm there with you. I triple check stuff just to make sure the excel charts are right at work.

I heard on the radio a week or two ago that ANU is running back to basics Science for Parents courses so that people can help their kids out with homework. Maybe there's a market for remedial maths too.

alexis said...

I tried using trigonometry to make a pattern for a skull-cap sewn out of six triangles with curved sides. Eventually I gave up on the trig and used the rind from a head-sized cantaloupe.