Monday, March 06, 2006

How I Passed Bonehead Math

Just about the only commercial television program I watch is Numb3rs. I like the program in spite of the fact that I've never been good at mathematics. For people like me, math is a very difficult subject to learn, for the perplexing reason that its teachers are good at math. In eighth grade trigonometry, I was totally baffled about what to do with the sines, cosines, and tangents. The teacher would give formulas on how to calculate them, but not what to do with them once calculated. Once I learned how to use them ( as I recall, it involved multiplication), I had no problem. But the math teacher didn't bother explaining things that were obvious to mathematicians. Nor did my math text explain it clearly.

I managed to get through high school math with mostly Cs. When I took the ACT, I did better in math than I expected, but not well enough to test out of the University of Iowa's core math requirement, informally known as Bonehead Math. And a recent episode of Numb3rs reminded me of how I got through the course with a C, thanks to antiwar violence in the 1970s.

The episode began with black-and-white footage of antiwar protesters, then cut to an unidentified person making a bomb. The Hollies' "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" played in the background. The bomb goes off at an Army recruiting office, killing a bystander. It appears to be a copy of a 1971 bombing at an ROTC office, and a retired FBI agent, who worked on the 1971 case, is brought in to assist. I won't get into the details, but math whiz Charlie Eppes uses network analysis to solve both cases.

I took Bonehead Math during the spring semester of 1970. By May, I was still holding on to a C, but I wasn't confident about passing the final. On May 4, the Ohio National Guard opened fire at Kent State University, and four people died. That night, the protests at Iowa turned violent. I was living at home in North Liberty, six miles north of Iowa City, so I didn't witness the rioting. On the morning of May 5, I saw the aftermath. Many of the downtown stores had their windows broken; the legend KENT was writ large on a concrete underpass. The Iowa National Guard arrived later.

After more demonstrations, the University decided to shut down. Students had the option of taking the grade they had at the beginning of May or taking an incomplete. I had my C, and I had passed the math requirement. Even though I had avoided the final exam, I had a recurring nightmare of having to take it, and being thoroughly unprepared.


cynthia said...

Wow. That's a great story. I think the folks over at would enjoy it.

steve said...

Thanks for the compliment and the tip, cynthia. I've posted the story on the Nubm3rs Lounge forum. Maybe next I'll try to find out whether the 3 in the show's name is a subtle tribute to mathemetician and comedian Tom Lehrer, who had a story about his friend Henry, who, "to get an idea of what an individualist he was, spelled his name Hen3ry. The 3 was silent."

Peter said...

Only our subconscious could snatch defeat from the jaws of such outrageous, dreamlike victory.

Patry Francis said...

Ah, the dreaded math requirement! This brings so much back.

Tea N. Crumpet said...

I am doing mine through distance ed-- no amount of tyranny could relieve me!