The making of a mathematician (Episode I)

I don't remember ever not being good at maths. My first memory of maths is asking my dad what minus three teddy bears looked like -- I must have been about four -- and him not really answering the question. In retrospect, he probably gave the same answer as I would have given, but I got an early exposure to the idea that grown-ups were fallible, that there were questions that didn't have an easy answer.

At primary school, I remember exactly three mathematically-related things. I remember a supply teacher telling me off very sternly for screaming 'DAMN!' in frustration when my ambitious attempt to build a decahedron out of clipped-together triangles collapsed. I probably didn't know it was a decahedron at the time, and I had no concept of over-reaching.

There was one time, we were measuring triangles, and I had my group wait for ten minutes to measure the long side because I wanted to predict it with a calculator. I had to run to the school office and pick it up, tap the numbers in in a breathless hush and then give an absurdly precise answer. None of us had the skills to decide whether the answer and the measurement were the same.

And lastly, there was the Rounding Incident. It's embedded firmly in my memory. The thing is, Mr Hawkins was like a god to the 11-year-old me: he was about nine feet tall, he knew a lot about everything, he drove a retro-chic 2CV, he taught us to sing La Bamba and songs about muck-spreaders in assembly, he rolled his eyes whenever the hungover local vicar started moralising, which was every Tuesday.

And Mr Hawkins was teaching us about rounding. He told us that if you had to round something like 0.45 to the nearest whole number, you'd look at the 5 and round it up to 0.5 and then look at that to round it up to 1.

Even at that tender age, I knew that was WRONG. WRONG in capital letters. WRONG, WRONG, WRONG in triplicate. (Clearly, 0.45 is closer to 0 than it is to 1). It was a wrench to reconcile the idea of wrongness with Mr Hawkins' status. This digression would not stand, man.

I don't even remember being nervous about putting my hand up to put him right. I do remember my explanation of why he was wrong being more angry than it was coherent. Mr Hawkins was nothing if not a reasonable man -- I don't remember what his response was, but I'm pretty sure I hadn't convinced anyone and had just confused everyone else in the room*. And I think that was the point I realised how important it was to communicate properly in maths**.

I could go on for weeks about incidents that made me a mathematician, but that's enough for one article. There's more, though: much more.

* If I hadn't, though, everyone would have learned the WRONG THING!
** It's probably also why I get into irritating 'but somebody's WRONG on the INTERNET' flamewars.

Colin

Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.

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