Mathochism: On a tangent

One woman’s attempt to revisit the math that plagued her in school. But can determination make up for 25 years of math neglect?

We continue with circles, and they continue to be more complex than I imagined.

Uchitel introduced tangents, secants, derivatives and limits. Now, the latter two were actually a sneak peek into calculus, and he was semi-apologetic for taking a great leap forward, but I was able to understand what he was saying partly thanks to algebra (those hated graphs!) and algebra II (shocker, I know).

He also gave us some math history, telling us that it was Isaac Newton who gets credit for derivatives and inventing calculus. I mentioned this during dinner — not that it surprised me that Newton did this, just that I, ever the journalist, always enjoy hearing about the people behind the math. And my spouse brought up Gottfried Leibniz, and the great calculus controversy, which made it even more interesting, since I love me some academic drama.

As a writer, though, I started thinking about the new (or new-ish, since I took geometry before, and must have heard them at some point) terms, and how several of them have rather negative implications when used in a non-math way.

Let’s start with tangent. “Going off on a tangent” is not always considered to be a good thing, because it gets you off point and away from your central argument. A journalist with a limited newshole cannot afford to go off on tangents.

Which takes me to limits. While it may be good to know your limits (I won’t climbing a mountain anytime soon), being “limited” is often seen as a bad thing. Limits can fence you in, emotionally and physically.

Then, there’s derivatives. To call a writer, or an artist, derivative is usually an insult. To be derivative is to be unoriginal, and it is criticism leveled at everyone from Lady Gaga to J.K. Rowling.

Secant is the only term that raises no questions. As far as I know, it’s purely mathematical, though I can see a car company using it. “Introducing — the Honda Secant! Now with more mileage and horse-power!”

Well, I guess that’s enough of a tangent. Uchitel promised he will get our tests back to us next class. I do hope my performance wasn’t too limited by over-thinking.

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.



  • The Honda Secant! That’s hilarious. My favorite math word is “mantissa”. Always seemed like a great name for the proprietress of a biker bar in a Mad Max movie.

  • Mantissa also sounds like a deep-sea creature who regularly battles the kraken.

  • Or perhaps a high-end dessert or an alcoholic drink.
    “And I’ll have the mantissa.”

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