Mathochism: Inconvenient numbers

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

I’m on my fourth math class, and it’s official — I can’t stand irrational numbers.

Fie on you, infinitely repeating decimal! A pox on you, square root of a prime number! You may have your uses, but you’re also a pain, particularly when I’m doing arithmetic. The simplest problems get all messy when either of you are involved. And I don’t like my math messy. Math is the closest thing I have these days to something tidy in my life. One solution, one distinct strategy. I can’t say that about my relationships. Or my health. Or my ever-changing career trajectory. Or the dust that gathers on every surface, no matter how often I clean.

Sigh. Now, even math is screwing with me!

We’ve been doing areas and perimeters of circles, and that of course involves pi, the empress of irrational numbers. Oh, pi. Why can’t math quit you? You even have an unofficial holiday (March 14) named after you, where your acolytes bake a tasty dessert in your honor. Call me crusty, but I’m Team Cake. Cake forever! Let the rest eat pie!

In the last class, Uchitel set us a problem that was my idea of a math pain. It didn’t just involve pi, it also involved a special 30-60-90 triangle, which meant figuring in the square root of 3. I know I got the right answer, but it involved far too many elements for my liking.

As I finished it, Uchitel stopped by my desk. I fear he still hopes I will produce greatness.

“Did you get it?” he asked.
“I think so,” I replied. “But it’s very untidy.”
“Show me,” he said.

I took him through my process, and he nodded.
“You are right, you are right, don’t worry!”
“But … it’s so messy!”
“It is like life,” he told me as he moved on to his next student. “Life is inconvenient!”

I didn’t argue with him, because there was no argument. But I felt slightly vindicated later, when, after sweating through all the fractions and roots and, yes, pi, he told the class that he wished the textbook author could have given us a neater problem. Arithmetic, he added, has a way of getting in the way of a good geometry problem.

“I am not here to teach arithmetic, I am here to teach geometry!”

Truer words were never spoken. Sadly, I think there is still plenty of arithmetic in my future, and that a lot of it will involve irrational numbers. Pass the cake. And the pie. The more sugar I can medicate with, the better!

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



  • I agree with your prof about math not being tidy — just like life. In a sense, for math to be real or to reflect reality, it can’t be tidy! Like in astrophysics where they try to describe the universe, but then have to concede that 90 percent of everything is “dark matter” which they don’t understand or know whether it even exists. Theology is full of paradox. Biology can’t fully explain the placebo effect. Perhaps irrational numbers is math’s way of winking at us, saying, yeah, we don’t totally get it either.

  • Yeah, I know. And the higher I get in math, the closer it gets to theology. It’s kind of fun that way.

  • If you ever blog about that… Math approaching theology… I definitely want to read it.