by Sarah Albrecht
Lewis Thomas wrote that Montaigne, an early essayist, frequently explored topics which interested him without researching or claiming expertise. I’ll have to take my cue from Montaigne today since I’m thinking about math.
Math fascinates me because it is the language of patterns (I think “language of patterns” came from The Calder Game…?). In that sense, it is a universal language. But let’s get this straight: I’m not good at it.
I hated math all through school—working through the box of math cards in second grade more slowly than other kids, multiplying three numbers by each other in fifth grade, grinding through algebra and trigonometry in high school. I based my college major on how I could get through without any math since I didn’t want to ruin my GPA. And I still let my mom figure out the right amount of material for making curtains.
To my surprise, though, I’ve been able to help my ninth-grade daughter with algebra right up through the third quarter, but that doesn’t mean I really understand it. All I do is find the pattern to follow, then follow it. I have no idea how the concepts would be applied in real life, but using the pattern helps in the meantime. Math is more approachable if I separate it into pattern recognition and pattern application.
I love the idea that math can describe patterns in nature and music; that math can predict future patterns based on present ones. Last summer I read The Secret Life of Numbers, a collection of essays about math for laypeople. It exposed a realm of thinking which, since I generally lack a frame of reference in which to apply it, I have largely already forgotten. One story that struck me, though, was about some mathematicians who did a study on the shapes, or patterns, which are most efficient for tile-layers. That is, they figured out which shapes take the least amount of perimeter while enclosing the most amount of space. The answer? Hexagons. Then the author pointed out that bees figured out that same thing long, long ago, and hence the patterns we see in their honeycomb. Pattern and application.
All this talk about recognizing and applying patterns reminds me of a familiar scripture: “Organize yourselves, prepare every needful thing, and establish a house…” Organizing often entails finding a pattern to follow. Preparing often entails gathering—physically, spriritually, mentally, emotionally--what is needed to follow the pattern. And doesn’t establishing often entail following the pattern?
Hey, does this mean I can somehow apply math to writing? Or to life? Just give me a sharp pencil and a big pink eraser and I'll give it a try.