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Logarithm and blues: Confessions of a maths dunce


I WROTE recently in TCW Defending Freedom about how Latin was a closed book to me at school. So, in the spirit of mea culpa, I might as well confess there was another subject at which I was hopeless . . .  maths.  

My admission is prompted by the recent discovery that etchings on a clay tablet from ancient Babylon show that Pythagorean geometry was being used 3,700 years ago – 1,000 years before Pythagoras himself.  

It’s humbling to think that supposedly primitive folk were doing complicated maths millennia ago, while in the 20th century I couldn’t make head nor tail of it.  

Like most children in the 1950s, I could do what we called ‘sums’, being taught from an early age in primary school to add, subtract, divide and multiply.  

But when it came to advanced maths – in my case, anything more complicated than the 12 times table – things just didn’t add up for me.  

The downward slope started when we were introduced to geometry in secondary school. Right from the off, all that stuff about angles and degrees, ‘given, required, proof’ and QED, made my brain hurt. I didn’t know my arcs from my elbow.  

In quick succession came further mathematical mysteries and miseries – algebra, logarithms, calculus, trigonometry and such. I remember sitting in class looking in growing horror at pages of log tables. They might have been hieroglyphics for all I understood them.  

Some time around the mid-1960s, we were given slide rules – quite expensive pieces of equipment then, before electronic pocket calculators. While my classmates were soon using theirs to work out the square root of a trillion zillion, I was scratching my back with mine.

Then we were given textbooks about the ‘New Maths’. Here we go again, I thought, more mind-numbing numbers to mess up my head.  

But I was wrong. The book included using a binary base for arithmetic instead of ten – that is, 0 and 1. And, wonder of wonders, I suddenly grasped the concept.  

I was delighted and saw my future as the new Einstein stretching before me, winning a Nobel Prize at least. However, I turned out to be like the simple-minded janitor in the 1968 film Charly, who is temporarily turned into a genius by brain surgery, only gradually to revert to his former state. After a few weeks of clarity, the veil closed again.  

What a pity, because I might have gone on to greater things. Binary is now the basis of our whole digital, computer-driven world. The British Bill Gates, me? Well, maybe not.  

When I reached the fifth form, my teachers finally gave up on me and banned me from taking even the mock maths exam at O-level. Instead, I concentrated on English.  

It was a blessed release for us all. Luckily for my offspring and siblings, it didn’t turn out to be a hereditary affliction.  

I hold the mathematically-minded in great respect and even awe. I think they’re so lucky to have an extra tool for interpreting the world around us, hopefully giving them a rational insight into what’s really going on.  

Many years ago, I saw a BBC Horizon programme about probably the biggest question of all: Where did the universe come from? I was impressed by one learned chap who said quite confidently that one day everything will be explained by mathematics – including life, death, consciousness, art, beauty, love, and even God. I think he may be on to something.  

Another TV programme asked whether we humans invented maths and now use it to try to explain the universe, or whether the maths is inherent in the fabric of the universe and we’re gradually discovering it. The programme concluded that the latter is true. If so, it’s fascinating to think where that might lead.  

So, good luck to the masters of mathematics – may their numbers always be prime and may their squares stay on the hypotenuse. As for me, I’ll remain in the dunce’s corner quietly reciting my times tables.  

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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