I've always been freakishly good at doing arithmetic in my head. Not quite as good as Rain Man, but definitely unusual. However, I've never found mathematics to be interesting. I wonder whether that's an unusual combination of aptitude and disinterest. I stopped taking math classes in high school as soon as I was allowed to, at the end of 10th grade, when the algebra and geometry courses I had completed met the minimum requirements for graduation.
My younger brother took more advanced math courses. Much more advanced. My brother is literally a rocket scientist. He's got a Bachelor's and Master's of Science from MIT. As an undergrad he had a summer internship working for Martin Marietta and NASA on the Space Shuttle. Then between the Bachelor's and the Master's he took two years off from school and worked for a private company which has sent all sorts of things into orbit. A genuine rocket scientist. We're very proud of the little genius.
Every couple of years, I get an urge to study some more advanced math, and engineering and physics. The urge usually passes very quickly, but then again, it keeps coming back. About 30 years ago I had the urge, and my brother gave me this:
It's the 5th edition of Calculus and Analytic Geometry by George B Thomas and Ross L Finney, both professors at MIT when the 5th edition was published in 1979. It was a worn-out copy, my brother was done with it. I don't know whether he had studied this book in high school in preparation for MIT, or if it was the textbook for a freshman class he took at MIT, or maybe both.
I still have that old worn copy of the Thomas/Finney that my brother gave me. But I still haven't looked at it much. I'm currently having another one of those urges to make myself interested in math. But that's just the problem: math remains excruciatingly boring to me. But now I've been looking at that textbook, paging through it. And also looking at other books such as Blatt and Weisskopf's Theoretical Nuclear Physics, Rojensky's Electromagnetic Fields and Waves and Tolstov's Fourier Series. Looking for something which I can honestly say that I find interesting.
I may have found something. Thomas and Finney may have been rather sly when it came to education. There are a lot of word problems for the students to solve in their textbook, problems demonstrating some applications of calculus and analytic geometry, and one of those problems has actually caught my attention. That's right: something in a math book has begun to interest me.
I can't find that problem right now. I think it's somewhere in the first 50 pages or so of this textbook which runs to well over 900 pages. And it's a collage freshman textbook. Freshmen at MIT, which is certainly not the same thing as freshmen everywhere, but still. Early on in a freshman math textbook, there was a problem which I don't know how to solve.
Yes, it was arrogant of me, but I had wondered whether, in addition to boring me, this textbook would also teach me anything, or not. Arrogant, yes. But, for example, I was factoring 3-digit numbers in my head as a small child, years before a math teacher introduced me to the term "factor." Without finding it interesting. Just because it was there in my head.
But somewhere toward the front of Thomas/Finney 5th ed is a problem which, reconstructed from memory, goes something like this: a person of height X is walking at speed Y directly toward a streetlamp of height Z. Determine the rate at which the length of X's shadow decreases.
I can't do that. But apparently the first chapter or two of this textbook will show me how to do it. (Assuming I'm smart enough to understand what the book says.)
And that is interesting. That is definitely an example of something this textbook could teach me. And, apparently, that's just the beginning of introductory calculus. Just scratching the surface.
That's pretty cool.
So, you realize what this means, right? That's right: I'm going to be the first person to win a Nobel Prize in Literature and another one in Physics, plus a Fields Medal.