One Mathematical Dunderhead=Me

A few weeks ago, I did something I know people here at Risky Regencies will sympathize with–I ordered a couple of books from abebooks, and when they arrived realized I already had them. Ooops. (The duplicates will probably pop up here as a giveaway soon, so stay tuned!). Then I knew it must be time for a Book Check.

I do this once or twice a year, going through my shelves, the stacks of books on the floor, and the plastic storage tubs of books. It gives me a chance to do some much-needed dusting (I am really glad you can’t actually see my house, because honestly housekeeping isn’t my forte), find books to donate to the library book sale (though this doesn’t really often happen–I think I got rid of all of 2 books last time), and see what I have that I might have forgotten about (and thus not order them again). This process takes quite a while, as I usually end up sitting on the floor re-reading stuff or looking at pictures in art books.

One book I found hiding on the shelf this time was Benjamin Woolley’s Bride of Science: Romance, Reason, and Byron’s Daughter. Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, aside from her father (who she never knew, of course, her parents having separated so acrimoniously when she was an infant) was a very interesting person in her own right. Raised by her wackadoo mother in an uber-strict manner, emphasizing science, logic, and morality (i.e. the anti-Byron), she was a part of the early Victorian interest in new technology and science. She was a gifted mathematician (something about using punch cards to calculate Bernoulli numbers, and an interest in the concept of imaginary numbers), and although some of her interests were, er, questionable (mesmerism and magnetism, and later using her own mathematical system to lose disastrously at the horse races) some was of lasting impact. She worked with her friend Charles Babbage on an invention called the Analytical Engine (this is where the punch cards came in) that is considered an early forerunner of the computer. She died at 37 (still harangued by her mother) and was buried next to her father, but her influence can still be seen–the US Department of Defense called their computer language “Ada.”

I’ve often said that the one kind of hero or heroine I could never write about would be a mathematician. I’m a terrible dunce with numbers–they lost me somewhere around first grade with those pesky multiplication tables. In school, my abstract brain preferred things like analyzing poetry, where there was no “right” answer. After all, who can say what “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” really means, yet 2+2 is always 4 no matter how you might feel about it at the moment. I’m so deeply impressed by people like Ada (or like my future sister-in-law, an engineer) who are good at such things. They’re so mysterious and strange to me. It would take an immense amount of hard research to make any mathematical character I wrote about believable. And yet inspiration is a strange thing. A heroine who is interested in algebra has taken up residence in my mind, and may one day have to come out on the page (though she is in line behind at least 4 other projects, all with stubbornly non-scientific heroines).

What were your favorite subjects in school? Any that you hated? What sort of character would you feel challenged to write or read about?

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About Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Writer (as Amanda McCabe, Laurel McKee, Amanda Carmack), history geek, yoga enthusiast, pet owner!
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14 years ago

One more mathematical dunderhead right here!! I really loved almost all of my subjects in school, but math just eluded me! So much so that when I got my bachelors degree I only had to to take one math class – Algebra I. I have three degrees and I never took another math class after that first one. I just don’t get it. It is really funny when you consider that most people say musicians are supposed to be good with math. YUCK! My favorites? Literature, History and Foreign Languages.

Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

“So much so that when I got my bachelors degree I only had to to take one math class – Algebra I.”

LOL! I also took only 1 math class in college–Statistics, called by my Liberal Arts friends “Math for Stupids.” I squeaked by because the professor gave great extra credit assignments like writing papers on mathematicians in history. πŸ™‚ My parents never did understand how I got A’s in high school English, History, and French and D’s and C’s in Algebra and Geometry!

(I’m breaking out in a rash just thinking about those classes…)

Susan Wilbanks
14 years ago

Math was always my least favorite, though I enjoyed subsets of math like algebra, statistics, and geometry that felt like solving logic puzzles. I had to have three semesters of calculus in college (undergrad b-school, giving me a marketing degree I’ve never used professionally), and I’m still not sure how I got through. None of it ever made sense to me.

My favorite subjects were history and music/band.

My muse has an annoying habit of giving me characters with abilities I can’t begin to approach. I can barely draw stick figures–my last heroine was a painter. Spatial/visual thinking isn’t my strong point–my current hero is a tactical military genius.

Incidentally, I’ve cut down on my duplicate books problem by spending a few days cataloging my entire collection on LibraryThing. Now, whenever I buy a new book, it goes straight to the catalog. I also add books I’ve read from the library or borrowed from a friend, tagging them so I’ll know I don’t actually have a copy on my shelves. Now I only rarely bring home a duplicate from a used bookstore binge.

14 years ago

I live in the arts/literature/history side of my brain. The math/science part has not functioned well since grade school. Although I did like algebra for some crazy reason. I never met a history or literature class that I didn’t like. This might explain my love of historical novels.

Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

“Incidentally, I’ve cut down on my duplicate books problem by spending a few days cataloging my entire collection on LibraryThing.”

I may need to do this, if I can find the time to do the cataloging! It would be a big help when trying to find something.

“I never met a history or literature class that I didn’t like.”

LOL! Me, neither. I would happily have gone on as student forever if I could. πŸ™‚

14 years ago

I just started using Library Thing and it is great! I can access when I am at the bookstore too. I wish they had had Math For Stupids where I went to school, Amanda!! I too, have never met a history or lit class I did not like and I am almost as bad about foreign language classes. The really hilarious thing/ I got A’s in everything in high school EXCEPT??? Driver’s Ed. I got a C!

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

I liked math in high school. Took it all Algebra I and II, Geometry, Trig. But as soon as I hit college, I avoided math. I couldn’t avoid Statistics, though, required for Psychology.

My favorite class was always English.And I loved Art History. I took all the classes I could in Art History.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

I should catalogue with The Library Thing. I’d love to know what I have! The time it would take daunts me though.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
14 years ago

I too was an incredible dunderhead when it came to math and science. Four years of biology in high school and I still couldn’t figure out how to turn on the bunsen burner! I shudder to tell you what I got on my math SAT, but funnily enough Amanda I took statistics in college and managed to get an A, go figure. Oh, and Ada, Countess of Lovelace is one of my favorites. Her daughter married Wilfred Blunt and they raised horses together. I always thought it amusing that Byron’s daughter was a mathematician.

Cara King
14 years ago

In school, my abstract brain preferred things like analyzing poetry, where there was no “right” answer. After all, who can say what “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” really means, yet 2+2 is always 4 no matter how you might feel about it at the moment.

Funny, Amanda, but that’s one reason I often preferred my math and science classes! You can go learn what 2 + 2 is, and then you know you know it, and when you write it on a test your teacher has to give you full credit. But essays were so darn subjective, you never know what you were going to get — and I hated that! πŸ™‚

I was a bit of a math and science geek myself — started out at a math/science/engineering college and was a chem major for a while. As far as math, I particularly liked algebra (including linear — fun!), thought calculus was fine, and wasn’t a big fan of geometry (proofs are like essays — hard to predict when a teacher will say “good but could be better” — whereas 4 is 4 and it can’t be 4 any better than it already is…)


Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

“I was a bit of a math and science geek myself — started out at a math/science/engineering college and was a chem major for a while.”

Cara, if I ever get around to writing about my mathematical heroine, stand by for lots of research questions!!

14 years ago

My favorite subjects in school were English and History/Social Studies. Math and Science were never my forte. I got along better with my English teacher, Mrs. Eible, who kept a pictures of Milton and Sir Lawrence Olivier on her desk. She said she could never decide which made her heart skip more.*wink*

14 years ago

I liked algebra, it was like solving puzzles, but I had difficulty with chemistry.

For college I went to art school, so the one required math class I took was math theory. That was a lot of fun.

A character I’d have trouble with? It would take me a while to get into the head of one of the patronesses of Almack’s.

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

With a masters in engineering, I have math on my resume, unfortunately, not much retained in my brain. That was always the problem. I have never had problems remembering obscure historical fact, but asking me to remember those partial differentials–aaarghh!! Let’s just say that going into engineering wasn’t my idea. Now, I’m not in it. πŸ™‚

LibraryThing is the best!! I love the software and was an early adopter.

14 years ago

OK, I’m clearly in the minority here (where is Lois when we need her!), but–well, three degrees in physics entails a looootttt of math. And I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t like it. Nowadays, the classes I teach are basically applied math classes. So math is a big part of my life.

If you do the kind of stuff I do for a living, you tend to have a lot of conversations with people you’ve just met, who never liked math, and who think you must be either a genius or a freak (or both) to do mathematical things for a living. I always make an analogy with learning a foreign language: it’s very hard to become fluent in a foreign language, it takes years of effort, and to keep it up you have to practice regularly. Some people have more of a knack for it than others, but almost anyone can learn it to a useful degree, given time and effort and (what is unfortunately most often missing) good teaching. Math really is like a language, as much as anything else–a language for expressing abstract ideas very precisely.

I do love reading about historic scientists and mathematicians. So if you ever do write a book with a mathematician heroine, Amanda, you’ve got one guaranteed reader here!


Elena Greene
14 years ago

Ammanda, I hope you’ll still be friends if I admit I was a math major!

But I actually hated math in elementary school. All those boring pages and pages of arithmetic practice sheets! Ugh. I started to enjoy math with algebra and geometry.

Some time I’d like to grow up the children in LADY DEARING’S MASQUERADE and give them romances. The oldest, Philippa, is into math and I think she’d make a great sexy bluestocking.

Georgie Lee
14 years ago

I read this book a couple of years ago and I really enjoyed it. Nope, math is not my thing. However, as I’ve grown older I’ve lost some of my terror of figures and I’m actually better at math now than I was in school. Of course, I haven’t faced down any trig questions lately so maybe I’m being overconfident.

14 years ago

Well, let’s see here. . . I don’t have three real degrees, but three associates (LOL) in Liberal Arts, Computer Science and Physics. So there was math there. Generally, I always liked science, but in high school I loved history, but more because who taught it. And I also loved English in senior year because who taught it. Ah. . . college I finally *really* liked science because I could take what I was interested in. . .

and well, I had to have math, but alas, I wasn’t always good at it. LOL But boy, does Todd have me totally beat. LOL But anyway, that’s a subconscious reaason why I started reading romances — they aren’t like science books. πŸ™‚

Lois, who, is at a loss to what to try to go for in a bachelor’s degree anymore. . . πŸ™

14 years ago

Great teachers make such a huge difference…when I was in elementary school I thought math was my worst subject. (Of course, when they say “math” in elementary school they mean “arithmetic.” πŸ™‚ But then I had great math and science teachers in junior high and high school. My life would have been so different if I hadn’t…