Mailbag: STEM Stereotypes, Intellectual Inadequacy, and the Crocodile Tears of the Math Student

Every so often, I comb through the Google search terms that have led people to my blog. Then I reply to them as if they were letters. It’s a thing.

Q: top 100 romantic kiss photographs?

A: You must’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere on the internet. Common mistake. Just reverse course and keep walking until you see a sign marked “Buzzfeed.”

Q: I feel inadequate that ive never taken high math.

A: In reply, anonymous sir or madam, I invite you to meditate on the opening lyrics from Disney’s masterpiece The Lion King:

From the day we arrive on the planet
and blinking, step into the sun
There is more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done…

This year I learned (or tried learning) to play the guitar, to rock-climb, and to write fiction. Next year I hope to travel, cook, and read more graphic novels. In college I studied cosmology, constitutional law, and evolutionary psychology. As a good friend recently told me, “You’re a dabbler at heart.”

But man, the things I haven’t learned yet! I don’t know French or Mandarin (or 6000 other languages). I haven’t studied a lick of physics since I was 16. I haven’t watched Office Space or read To Kill a Mockingbird. Heck, I’m still on season one of Breaking Bad, never mind the academic disciplines I’ve only grazed or admired from afar—chemistry, linguistics, theology, anthropology, continental philosophy, Latin American history, dance…

Higher math belongs somewhere on your equivalent list—not at the top, nor at the bottom, but smack-dab in the middle. It ought to stand proudly among the hundreds of fascinating things that serve as worthy uses of our time on Earth.

It’s silly to feel inadequate because you’ve missed out on some particular intellectual experience. We’re all inadequate, these days. The world’s too big for adequacy. Just keep exploring, and if you want to learn more mathematics, then do it!

Q: i love math. it makes people cry.

A: Like… tears of joy? Or sadness? Or involuntary but emotionless onion-style tears?

Q: i hate telling people i am a math major.

Just tell them you’re an Ursa Major. Their confusion will buy you time for an escape.

Seriously, though, if you’re worried that labeling yourself as a math major conjures up a specific, inflexible image in people’s minds, then the best thing you can do is gently push back against their stereotypes. People learn from other people. If you can defy their preconceptions of math majors, then those preconceptions will start to erode. Be a math major, and be your cool, down-to-earth self. People will connect the dots.

Haters gonna hate, lovers gonna love, and there’s never any point in hiding what you like to study. To quote a wise hashtag: “YOLO.”

Q: book on rice exponential?

I think you’re looking for One Grain of Rice, by Demi. It tells the mathematical fable of the girl who asks that one grain of rice be placed on the first square of the chessboard; then two on the second square; and four on the third; and eight on the fourth…

(Thanks to Rita Alway for pointing me towards this one!)

Q: fun, not-math-related two-column proof examples?

A: These are surprisingly tricky to create. The problem is that second column—you need abstract rules, laws, and definitions to cite. Geometry offers plenty of these: “Vertical angles are congruent,” “Parallel lines never intersect,” and so on. But the rest of the world doesn’t operate on immutable logical laws. Our truths are more contingent. This is one reason math makes such a great place to learn logic in the first place.

Anyway, here’s a (pretty flawed) attempt. Since two-column proofs are really about deductive reasoning, I use “fact” as a sort of “given.” The structure is somewhat akin to proving two triangles are congruent with a theorem like SSS or SAS.

Statement Reason
The Beatles didn’t perform their own voices in the movie “Yellow Submarine.” The Monkees always performed their own voices. Fact
The Monkees are more authentic than the Beatles. If a band does not perform its own voices, then it is the least authentic band possible.
Way more people have heard of the Beatles than the Monkees. Fact
The Monkees are more underrated than the Beatles. If more people have heard of a band, then it is more overrated.
Monkeys are a cooler animal than beetles. Fact
“The Monkees” is a cooler name than “The Beatles.” If two bands are named after animals, then the cooler animal is the cooler name.
The Monkees are a cooler band than the Beatles. If a band is more authentic, more underrated, and has a cooler name than another band, then it is a cooler band.

Q: me know i am a bad student.

A: Well, Cookie Monster, as long as you know.

23 thoughts on “Mailbag: STEM Stereotypes, Intellectual Inadequacy, and the Crocodile Tears of the Math Student

  1. If you want to dip your toe into linguistics, check out this MOOC on Corpus Linguistics (words meet statistical patterns) – it’s wonderfully designed to allow learners at different levels to focus on what interests them.

    You should be MOOCing anyway – it’s meant for dabblers: real courses by actual professors, yet low-pressure; you can set your own goals (and FREE, at least for now). I’ve dabbled in (and can make specific recommendations for/agin) Constitutional law, history, art, psychology, philosophy, literature, science, and, yes, math. In fact, I’ve more than dabbled in math, about half my completed courses are math courses. Still suck at it, though.

      1. Terrific! I’ve got Greek & Roman Mythology starting in a few days, Music Theory in a month, but mostly for the next couple of months I’m doing yet another calculus class (calculus, my White Whale) which is taking a ton of time (but is not without its moments of humor – Big O?? Seriously?!?!) so I may have to cut back.

        (your desk looks wonderful, like a fun place to be – except for whatever that is in the mug…)

    1. I just finished To Kill a Mockingbird last week. The best part was when Atticus turned to the sheriff and said “I always play a radio too loud.” The book is a whole lot better if you’re able to see Atticus as a headbanger.

    1. Oh no, has the Alt-text always been there? Now I’m going to have to start this whole blog over!

    2. Glad to help, Michael – thanks for the push to bring ’em back.

      Bobby, they went away for April and May, but I’m almost done filling back in the ones I missed.

  2. If someone told me they were an Ursa Major, I might think that they were someone astrologically ignorant telling me their star sign.

    “Monkees”? The Beatles misspelled their namesake in such a way that it includes a musical term (beat), whereas The Monkees misspelled their namesake in such a way that it avoids a musical term that was already in there (key). Puns are cool (fact). Ergo, The Beatles have a cooler name.

    1. This is an outstanding point. It’d be like a band changing its name from “Kilometers” to “Kilomeaters.”

      Although actually, “Kilomeaters” is a pretty cool name.

  3. I’m a math major who got tired of answering the question. Usually when someone asks what I’m majoring in I just say, “birds.” “You’re majoring in birds?” “Yeah, it’s going pretty well. I know like 4 or 5 already…”

    I find that helps to get me out of the conversation quickly. It’s nice because, being a stereotypical math major, I hate talking to strangers…

  4. Ooh ooh teacher! Call on me call on me!!

    A student in a MOOC I’m taking (Hi, Carlos!) asked what I think is a really good question:

    “Why is synthetic division synthetic? It seems analytical to me.”

    I couldn’t find anything googling around, but agreed it seems more about taking thing apart (the coefficients from the variables, the quotient + remainder from the whole) than putting things together. I looked up the etymology of the word “synthetic” and discovered the sense of “fake” didn’t emerge until approx. 30 years after Ruffini invented the technique, so it probably isn’t “fake division.” There’s a lot about synthetic vs analytic propositions in philosophy, which is right next door to the math department, but that goes way over my head. “It’s a misnomer” was also suggested, but I’m not licensed to misnomer in mathematics (yet).

    I thought you might either know, or might know someone who knows, or might be able to come up with a reasonable explanation.

    Come on, make something GOOD come out of synthetic division!

    1. Synthetic division, no clue. But synthetic vs. analytic statements is straightforward. A synthetic statement is one that depends for its truth on Real World facts, like “Snow is white”. Snow could have been green for all we knew before we saw any, but we observe that it’s white, and so “Snow is white” is synthetic.

      An analytic statement is one that has no such dependencies. A common instance is “All bachelors are unmarried men”, where it is supposed to be the very definition of “bachelor” that it means “unmarried man”. The case of “All bluejays are blue” is more shaky, because there are jays of other colors like gray, but they aren’t called “bluejays”. But the best example is supposed to be “1 + 1 = 2”. If you know what 1 and 2 and + mean, you know all you need to know.

      Some philosophers like Quine (and me in a small way) think that there are no analytic statements, and that “1 + 1 = 2” is just as empirical as “Snow is white”. We examine lots of snow and see that it is white. When we come across yellow or black or brown snow, we explain it as a mixture of snow with something else. If we never find any unmixed snow of any other color, we are happy to say “Snow is white” is true.

      But we can treat “1 + 1 = 2” exactly the same way. On seeing that one apple plus one apple is two apples, and the same for bluejays and condors, we generalize to “one anything plus one anything is two somethings”, which we write “1 + 1 = 2”. We exclude things like “one cloud plus one cloud = one cloud” as an application of addition to something that is not really an object and so just as unimportant in the scheme of things as colored snow. (Just don’t eat it.)

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