The myths, the maths and the mutts | Daily News

The myths, the maths and the mutts

I actually became a legend at primary and secondary school at St. Bens as the chappie who suffered from ‘arithmaphobia.’ It means I was never numerically inclined. Or worse still innumerate, meaning I was an irredeemable mathematical retard. I even coined a term for it. I called it ‘mathaphobia’.

A teacher who we had nicknamed ‘Regga’, made up a vicious yarn that whenever there was a mathematics examination I contracted a high temperature. He spread a rumour that when I sat for a test in numbing numerals that I got scared half to death. Okay, I admit I never liked the subject. I also admit I was ‘mathophobic’.

As far as I am aware there are three kinds of mathematicians. Those who can count, and those who can't. Hey, did I get something wrong somewhere? You may laugh like a jackass but I once got a geometry answer right. The teacher asked: “Rosayro what is a rectangle?” That was easy and I came up with a brilliant and ingenious answer that would have put me in the same league as Sir Isaac Newton, Archimedes and Carl F. Gauss. But the teacher was not amused when I answered: “A rectangle sir, is a crushed angle!”

I always considered mathematics a devilishly daft subject. So I thought why the heck should I have to follow a darn stupid formula. All numbers they say are the same, and if that is so with all the decimals involved then maths to me is pointless. Pure mathematics, my foot! My kind of maths is of the impure kind because I spew out the vilest oaths I know when confronted with a test.

But my detractors’ unfair accusation led me to pose some of those same pretty tricky questions to the numbers guys. They said that every time I was confronted with a maths problem I got scared half to death, remember? So I asked them: What happens if you get scared half to death twice? Does it mean logically I actually remain half alive?

I asked my good friend Lawrence about it. Lawrence is a mathematical guru and a darn good one at that. He is that rare type of teacher with magic chalk dust on the sleeve of his soul which he sprinkles liberally on the psyches of his charges. He conjures up numbers with the skill of a circus juggler and makes his lessons as entertainingly captivating. His teaching techniques are inspirational, and his students’ attention remains undivided as they appear mesmerised by his virtuosity.

His students concede that his classes are always a delight because he teaches mathematics in an intelligent sequence of steps which leaves no room for misunderstanding. And they aren’t imposed either. He has the ability to draw humour from the most humdrum data of numbing numerals and make it look easy. He always applies a light touch to even the most complex calculations imparting his lessons with an enchanting ingenuity. Humour is one of the most powerful tools teachers have at their disposal to get their pupils’ attention and Lawrence has made capital of that gift to generations of students.

Now back to the question. Lawrence threw back his head and laughed uproariously saying: “That is what the mathematicians call a known unknown.” But he was too good a guru to dodge the challenge and elaborated on the rider: “So the second time you get scared half to death, you have half of that still alive, meaning you'd be one quarter alive. And if you get scared half to death again then you'd be one-eighth alive. Then one sixteenth, one thirty second so on, and so on.”

But another acquaintance Nick whose name rhymes with something really rude when nude, fancies himself a numbers whiz. He is also an insufferable cynic and theorises: “Okay. One half plus one half equals one whole. So bye-bye, you're dead!”

Fat hope you darn little nerd. I walked up to him and quipped in my most menacing drawl: “Well, as you are probably well aware, Mr Nick, you horrible nit-pick, the question is not so much whether there is life after death, but rather if there is life before death.” He backed off while I continued: “The thought of death can either make you live each day as if it were your last. Which one day it will be. Let's just hope today isn't one of these days. Or, the thought of death can make you stop living because it scares you so badly. And so it is that we ask these funny stupid questions.”

He headed for the door while I kept talking: “Ok Pricky Nicky, you are thorn in my side. You are not the last of the big spenders. So go to the undertakers and bargain about your funeral. Ask them what the normal warranty is on burial coffins. Whether they offer a lifetime guarantee? We think it's important to know before you're going six feet under. By the way, why is it six feet under? Why not five feet or seven feet or six point three feet? Do undertakers really measure that depth?”

“Okay go drive on the Expressway you mathematical nerd. You will be charged for snail-pacing, with half of the folks driving way above the speed limit, half the folks driving below the speed limit and half the folks trying to figure out what the other two halves are doing and which one they wanted to belong to. Yes, I know that is three halves. It’s what you call Treasury think-tank mathematics. So you will get scared half to death all the way. Now what does that make you? Now there’s an imponderable! Because you are wondering if you are going to make it home or be a statistic.”

But if anyone like Nick believes I am fractionally alive or hopefully imagine that my number is up because numerals can liquidate whatever is remaining will have another think coming. But there’s nothing to really worry about me. Because old anti-mathematicians like me never die. We just go off at a tangent and tend to zero!

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