Why are the ninja secrets important?

If you’ve been following the Flying Colours Maths blog for any length of time, you’ll have noticed that every Monday, there’s a new Secret of the Mathematical Ninja, a quick tip or trick for coming up with a more-or-less accurate estimate of some crazy sum you might see in your A-level class.

And you’d be quite justified to take a look at those articles, look at me sardonically and say “I have a calculator.”

There’s a bit in one of my favourite books, Numerical Recipes in C, where they’re talking about the error bounds in a fourth-order Runge-Kutta expansion (racy stuff, I tell you). They point out that you can use your error term to get a better estimate — but if you do that, you’ve no idea how wrong your estimate is. After all, you just used the error term.

You should learn the ninja tricks — or at least to take pride in your mental arithmetic — for much the same reason. Your calculator gives you a number… but is it a sensible number? You get an exact expression for a volume — but is it a reasonable answer? Without the ninja tricks — or at least some way of checking — you have no idea.

Let me be clear: I’m not expecting you to do your paper in your head. Just that if you can come up with a ballpark number, even on paper, you can say “that looks just about right”, or “hang on — that’s absurd”, which tells you to go back and check.

I make mistakes all the time in class. Probably as many as you do. The difference is, I catch them.

* Edited 2014-10-04 to fix typo.


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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I teach in my home in Abbotsbury Road, Weymouth.

It's a 15-minute walk from Weymouth station, and it's on bus routes 3, 8 and X53. On-road parking is available nearby.

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