Mar 6, 2009

Math Musings

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.


  1. Sarah I had very much the same experience. I struggled through school until I had to take trig in college. Suddenly I got it. Not only could I do it, but I understood it. And why it's important even if you don't get it. It's about learning how to solve problems. And yes I saw immediately how it related to writing. Good post.

  2. All I can say is I planned my major around the least amount of math and I still have one class to take but I keep putting it off. I think I'll wait until one of my teenagers has to take it and we'll do it together.

  3. Sarah, Math was never my thing either. I did fine at it, and actualy found the patterns thrilling due to some really off the wall, creative and fun teachers . . . until 10th grade when I got a dry, boring, teacher that was just biding his time till retirement, and I began to dislike it. I took the minimum math required at BYU, then swore off the stuff. Fast forward 15 years, and I found myself immersed in the mathamatics of musical theory as I began to write harp music. Math and its patterns became fascitinatig again. Music is all mathamatical, and it is quite amazing. Thanks for a thought provoking blog.

  4. Love you post, Sarah! I find patterns math, in music, and yes, in writing...I appreciate you scripture reference, too! thanks!


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