When am I ever gonna use this stuff?

Yesterday the Queen B and I had an appointment at the local medical center to begin a series of hepatitis shots needed for travel to China. As we were talking with our new doctor, the conversation turned to the fact that both my wife and I teach mathematics.

“Really? I loved math in school!” the doctor exploded. “I still know the Quadratic Formula. Wanna hear it?”

“Er..” *

* It wasn’t that I was being rude about hearing my doctor recite the Quadratic Formula. Rather, I was slightly taken aback by the sudden outpouring of excitement over mathematics. Normally, when folks learn that I do mathematics for a living, they respond in much the same fashion as though I told them I’d been recently diagnosed with leprosy: “Oh you poor thing… don’t touch me, okay?”

This reminds me of a story about Richard Bellman, a mathematician who worked with decision processes and control systems theory. At parties, whenever he was asked what he did for a living, Bellman always replied “I am a tennis coach.” When later asked why he invariable did this, he remarked, “I get tired of the automatic response to the statement that I am a mathematician.”

Anyways, to resume with the story…

“Er..”

Minusbeeplusorminusthesquarerootofbeesquaredminusfourayseeovertwoay.”

I’d never heard it pronounced as a single word before.

“That,” the doctor continued, “was the one piece of mathematics that got me through medical school. I never would have passed the MCATs without the Quadratic Formula.”

I’m not sure whether I’m more comforted or frightened by that fact.

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