A book that explains the great mysteries of mathematics and the history of the science very simply so even a layman can understand it all…
By Fareeha Qayoom
ath has always been a great mystery to me – I have a methodical, logical brain but for some strange reason, I never understood math at school. I remember in grade 2, my teacher explained the basics, addition, subtraction, division and multiplication but I didn’t get it. I remember looking at the black board apprehensively, copying the material in my exercise book and taking it home.
Not that I wasn’t good at math when someone explained the rules to me –I remember I was pretty good at it in grade 3,4, 5 and 6 and then it was all downhill from there. We had algebra and geometry in addition from grade 7th onwards…I elected to do without math in my O’ Levels so I never learnt trigonometry, algebra and geometry…by the time, I went to college, I had chosen to take Statistics, again, I got by with a good score by asking friends to explain things to me…the teacher as usual was not very good at explaining the rules but I was in trouble when I got to my bachelor program – you had to explain all the rules and formulae by proofs…unfortunately, I never got that part right. My teachers could be speaking French for all I understood, I didn’t get a single word…so I tried cramming in the formulae and proofs, you know, learning them by rote, this doesn’t work. If you forget a single line of the formula, it doesn’t make sense anymore. I did pass my exam without having to sit for it again but I always felt I could have done better if only somebody would teach it to me properly.
I have always regretted not having good teachers. It could be that I have a difficulty in learning math – unfortunately, I have a very visual brain and I never could get a picture in my head to explain all the words that made up the math rules. I had a great time with quadratic equations because a dear friend of mine sat me down and explained a few basics that made all the difference and then another friend of mine taught me probability theory. So, I do know its not basic stupidity that impedes me from learning math. It’s just that I could never get a handle on how to explain it all in my head visually so I could never understand or retain it for long… I have always felt a hankering for that understanding…
Another thing, since I can not add or subtract double digit figures in my head like other normal people, I have to have a calculator or a piece of paper to do the math so I am always having trouble with small change…today, for example, the guy asked me for PKR 30 and I gave him 3 20s! For some weird reason, because I was too busy thinking of the pesky 10, I never realized that 2 20s was enough and he still would owe me a ten. A lot of my friends make fun of my handicap. I wish I had a photographic memory, then, I probably could remember how the numbers would be placed in relation to each other pictorially in my head without having to write them down on paper first…unfortunately, I don’t have this ability so I am frequently at mercy of the teller – I always have to take it on trust. Luckily, they are so busy making sure they do not make a mistake that they usually hand me the right change. Couple of times, however, I had to go through the inconvenience of being short changed.
So I struggle – I keep looking for a basic math book that would explain this great mystery to me. Unfortunately, math is God’s first language; if you want to understand the ‘how,’ you have to know your math. So I was pleasantly surprised to come across this book called, “Introducing Mathematics,” by Ziauddin Sardar, Jerry Ravetz and Borin Van Loon. The book is quite short, full of pictures and formulae and takes you down the memory lane, walking you through the history of mathematics, explaining all the stages of humanity’s progress and struggle to explain the great mysteries of the universe through the mathematical language of numbers. It also tries to give credit where its due as far as advances in mathematics are concerned, though it falls a little short – for example, there is no mention of Al-Khwārizmī who invented Algebra, however, overall the role of Indians, Chinese, Arabs is all explained, in addition to other civilizations contributions, however, the Europeans could have a problem with this because they are accustomed in thinking that math was invented by the Greeks and Romans before the dark ages and then, Arabs borrowed this knowledge, synthesizing it with the advances made by the Indian civilization (invention of zero) to come up with a new science that powered the renaissance of Europe! At least, this book attempts to put everyone’s contribution to the collective human knowledge in its proper perspective.
Unfortunately, it left me struggling to make sense of some of the advanced formulas…as long as they were talking about the history I was fine but when they got technical and wrote down some formula to explain something, I was confused again…because there are gaps in my knowledge but the writers take it for granted that I would know all this stuff intellectually anyway because we are supposed to do it at school…there are obvious changes of speed without giving you enough background info to deal with them…so you are all at sea trying to figure out what it all means in real terms. In spite of that, the book makes an absorbing read. I didn’t put it down once, even, when I got confused, I kept on reading it…a good book that could have been a little better.¨