My MIT math genius moment, or as Barbie put it “Math is hard”.


December 12, 2012 by kittynh

This is a story about why it’s always important to pay attention.

There is now research that shows that for some people, solving math problems can cause actual physical pain.  I don’t know how much money was paid for this research but I can assure you that they could have saved a lot of money and just asked me.  I remember doing math homework in Middle School and crying.  I felt actual pain and would end up with a painful headache by the end of a too long session trying to solve problems.

Part of my problem is I have mild dyslexia.  Words I finally figured out.  If you read something wrong, and it doesn’t make sense, you can give it a second look.  My spelling will always be horrible, but I learned to finally learned to read.  Numbers however are tricky.  If you add 25+7 you get  32.  If you add 52+7 you get 59.  Both answers make sense, there is none of the self correction that there is with words.  So not only would I get headaches from doing hours of math homework, I would often get things wrong.

My school managed to stuff algebra and geometry (which I actually enjoyed and  got straight A’s in) in my head, I was told I was really not a “math person” but wasn’t it great I was good at art?  Guidance counselors gladly steered me away from high earning science and math fields and pointed me toward the career of starving artist.  It has worked out well for me, and I’ve enjoyed the fun and enriching (emotionally if not financially) life of a teacher/artist.

Math is still something I wish I could understand.  I still simply look at a Sudoku puzzle and feel the need to reach for an aspirin.  My husband is wonderful at math.  My older daughter, is also good at math, though it has caused her more than a few headaches.

While in High School she took some math Advanced Placement classes.  She had to work a bit harder than the students that were naturally gifted at math, but her school believes that sometimes all it takes is a little extra effort for all the students to do well.  There was no guidance counselor saying “Maybe math isn’t  your thing, have you considered these other non math low paying careers?”

My oldest daughter Evelyn fell in love with geology as an undergrad.  She realized she would need to take advanced math classes, and she did well.  However, for graduate school she was accepted to the joint program at MIT/Woods Hole.  She knew she was in for it at MIT.  Evelyn knew MIT was filled with those students who not only were naturals at math, but also found the mistakes in the math textbooks.

Evelyn, the child that never got below an A in any class, did the biggest happy dance ever for a B- in a math class at MIT.  While other undergrads were busy attempting to throw themselves off buildings because they had received their first B, Evelyn as a graduate student  understood she had something to celebrate.

Evelyn admired her math teachers, but her favorite was Prof. Toomre.  She knows I love astronomy and Prof. Toomre had done work that applies mathematics to galaxies.  She invited me down to visit her in Boston and sit in on one of her classes.

Not a clue what this means….

An MIT classroom is filled with all the really geeky smart kids from high school, only these kids  were even smarter than the geeky kids I went to school with.  I really enjoyed sitting in a classroom, where the students were finally, truly in their element. A few students were wearing pajama pants to class. I swear one kid had mismatched shoes. Fashion and style aren’t big among students at MIT.  No one cares what you wear or if you can’t cut it socially.  It’s what goes on in your brain, not what goes on your body, that counts at MIT. MIT is the first place my daughter was complimented on how well she dresses.  She grew up in rural Vermont and New Hampshire where she learned to wear the polar fleece without pills on dressy occasions.  Let’s say the title “best dressed geology student” wasn’t as much of a compliment as it might be at other institutions of higher learning.

When Prof. Toomre walked in the room lit up.  I could tell, this man loved math and he loved to teach math.  One difference at MIT, he assumed you knew a lot.  There was no going back over stuff, or long explanations.  I looked around and saw some younger students diligently writing down almost every word Prod. Toomre said.  They were sweating, and I could tell probably for the first time math wasn’t coming easy.  They had come to MIT with perhaps perfect SAT scores and were the stars of their high schools.  At MIT, they were just one of a crowd, and had to really work.

Still, there were a few students that were true geniuses.  One student did not take notes, but he was knitting the entire class.  He was not knitting a simple scarf, he was knitting a complex cable pattern from memory.  I later learned that his mind needed the distraction of knitting so he could pay attention to what the professor was saying.  Once during the class he quietly looked up and pointed out a mistake, then went back to knitting.

I tried to pay attention.  I once sat in a McDonalds in rural Holland and listened to other diners speaking.  I desperately tried to understand some of the words.  I felt the same way here.  This was math as I had never known it.  The only thing I could understand was when Prof. Toomre said “When the vector is in this position, it’s always zero.”

I didn’t have to worry about developing a headache, I couldn’t even begin to imagine how to do any of the problems he was talking about.  However, at one point Prof. Toomre said, “…and when the vector is in this position?”  I looked and saw the other students beginning to do calculations, but still I was sure what I had heard earlier.  I spoke up, “It’s zero!”.  Professor Toomre looked up at me and smiled “Correct!”  The other students looked up at me, and for once, just once, I felt like a math genius.

What’s our vector Victor? I know it’s ZERO!

The problem was the other students had heard and understood all the other things Professor Toomre had said since he had pointed out that a vector in that position would always be “zero”.  Their brains had been filled with all this other information.  It was the only thing I had understood the entire class, so it was the only thing I had remembered.  I had known the answer faster than an entire classroom full of MIT students!

After class I was proud to shake Professor Toomre’s hand.  I was proud my daughter was taking a math class from such a distinguished person.  But I was also proud I had answered one question in a MIT math class.  Paying attention, even when you don’t know what “language” someone is speaking,sometimes pays off.

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