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?”
* 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…
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.