Mathochism: Depressed equations

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

Our next test is coming very soon, and it covers several concepts I’m still shaky about.

I have written before about my dislike of graphs. I don’t dislike them as much as word problems, but I find the process of translating equations, particularly bizarre ones, into lines on Cartesian planes tedious. At the same time, I’m seeing the clear connection between abstract polynomials and actual things. And the fact that the sounds I hear, the light coming through my window and the shapes I see in a photo on my wall can all be turned into, say, x cubed plus x squared plus x plus 15, is very cool.

That said, it can be fiddly, tedious work. The chapter we’re being tested on has introduced ways to make it less tedious, and one such way is to turn a complex polynomial into a simpler one by factoring. The result is called a “depressed equation.” As a writer, I cannot fail to see the humor in this. And as I get higher up in math, I find a few more glimmers of humor in what is otherwise a rather dry field.

I have not really talked about my current pre-calc book, but now I will say I much preferred the one I bought for my dropped summer course. Why? Well, this current one is the epitome of dry. It has a lot of charts and convoluted explanations that nonetheless skip steps, and my heart sank when I saw my college is using the same authors for calculus.

The other book was a lot more fun. It wasn’t pandering, or trying to be hip like my Elementary Algebra text. But it took pains to include bios on mathematicians in every chapter. The bios were a lot of fun, skating over the serious as well as the salacious parts of famous figures’ lives. For example, Pythagoras didn’t just come up with a-squared plus b-squared equals c-squared, he had his own religious cult, and according to some sources, shocked Greek society by teaching math to (gasp!) women.

Frankly, I wish math departments at universities would offer a history of math class (or perhaps do it as an exchange with another department) that covered the lives of the men and women who contributed to the field. So many of them were colorful and, frankly, fascinating. (And science — did you know physicist Erwin Schrödinger shocked Princeton with his open marriage?)

I realize I’m speaking very much as a humanist — and a journalist — here, and that Blaise Pascal’s personal tragedies are irrelevant to his contribution to math. But if he hadn’t decided to give up on the field so early, what else might he have discovered?

Just as a complex polynomial can be graphed, or turned into a sound wave or a ray of light, knowing more about the people who actually puzzled out all the concepts I am now struggling to learn makes them easier to bear.

It makes finding zeros for all those damned equations a lot less depressing.

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



  • At both the school I’m at now and my undergraduate university, they have pretty good History of Math classes. I never had the opportunity to take one of them, but everyone I know who took it loved it.

    Also: The Hairy Ball Theorem is a seminal result in low-dimensional topology (not kidding, but pun intended!).

  • That’s great! I’m so glad those classes exist. We have no such joy at my community college.
    “Hairy Ball Theorem.” Heh.
    I also like “Sonic Hedgehog protein.,” though that’s biology.

  • One of my favorite biographies of a mathematician is that of Évariste Galois, who was a radical republican in 19th c France and died at the age of 20 (!) in a duel. None the less, his work revolutionized algebra, and helped formed the basis for modern mathematical thinking. Galois theory, a branch of mathematics named after him, proves that unlike a polynomial of degree 2 (or 3 or 4, but these are harder), where the roots/solutions can be written in terms of radicals (you may know this as the quadratic formula), one cannot do this with a polynomial of degree 5.

    I am very disappointed to hear you describe a subject as beautiful as mathematics as dry, although I certainly understand that it is often taught in such a way to make it seem so.

  • Oh, Ruthi, you misunderstand me. I don’t think math (or the people behind it) are dry. I consider the way it is usually taught in both high school and college dry. In the time I’ve been doing this, I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of numbers. And I plan a future entry on the elegance of sines and cosines.

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