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Losing my Mathematical Marbles

Posted by Tom Benedict on 26/02/2016

Some months ago a co-worker and I were characterizing a pressure and vacuum system at our summit facility that changes its output as a function of angle off of zenith. As boring as that may sound, that’s nothing compared to what it actually meant for the people doing the characterization. Until something new comes along it’s my gold standard definition of boredom:

“Moving to plus thirty degrees. … Mkay.”

“Kay… Ok, go to plus fifteen.”

“Moving to plus fifteen degrees. … Mkay.”

“Kay… Ok, go to zenith.”

“Moving to zenith. … Mkay.”

“Kay… Ok, go to minus fifteen degrees…”

It went on like this. And on… And on… We made scans from +75 degrees to -75 degrees in fifteen degree increments. Over and over and over, day after day. By the end of a week of this my brain went off into some mathematical neverland. Positive angles were boring because they were what they were. No depth to them. No nuance. But negative angles… oooh, they’re tricky.

The rotary stage we used doesn’t do negative numbers. It wraps around to 360. So the negatives go from 0 to 345 to 330 to 315 to 300 to 285. The first fifty times or so you can convince your brain there’s nothing wrong. But by the time you’ve done hundreds of scans weird things start to pop out at you. I found myself thinking, “If you take away fifteen from sixty, you get forty five! And if you add forty five to fifteen you get sixty! And seventy five is a multiple of five and five and THREE!!” It was epiphany after epiphany! This stuff was MAGIC!

I think some of this had to do with the inane repetitiveness of what we were doing. I think the rest can be chalked up to oxygen deprivation. Luckily by the time I got down at night my brain had calmed down enough to realize how bizarre my mental state actually was. I opted not to share my new-found knowledge with my kids so they never had the chance to say, “Dad, I think you’re off your rocker. That’s basic math.”

This is why I fear the question every kid asks: “Are we really going to use this math stuff once we’re out of school?” I’m afraid of what I’d tell them.

– Tom


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