Talking about Math and Science

Like I’ve mentioned before, I have been taking some online math and programming courses as pre-requisites (or rather, requisites) for my Masters program. In my blog, I like to write about what is going on in my brain during the week, the thoughts I can’t seem to stop thinking about. Lately I’ve been thinking about math and science, but not writing about it. Why am I so loathe to write about math? I think it’s because I assume, like so many others, that no one wants to hear about math and no one wants to talk about math. If this is true, I want to try to change it.

I talked to a woman the other day who is a very successful lawyer. She said that in high school she loved physics, and going into college (UC Berkeley if I remember correctly), she wanted to be a physicist. She said it wasn’t poor teaching or intimidating classes that steered her away, she said she wanted to study something that she could talk about. It’s easier to talk about ideas you’ve read because they are in the same form as the way we speak (words), but how do we talk about math? I think it’s important for people, women especially, to learn how to talk about math and science in our everyday conversations. Why is it that we think these ideas are boring? Probably because we don’t talk about them.

In the spirit of talking about math/science and computers I’ll talk a little about my experience taking these courses the past couple weeks. As a student of the humanities (Near Eastern Studies and Geography), I have written many papers. I am really familiar with the process of writing a paper; formulating an argument, writing an outline, doing research, writing and editing drafts. I have done problem sets before, but I am re-learning the process. First off, I am relearning how to type. This is frustrating since I am a very quick typist in English, however, in html and LaTeX markup languages I use keys I’m unaccustomed to (like \ / |^$), I make mistakes and I have to type slower. It reminds me of learning to type in another language like Persian (well I guess it is another language). Typing isn’t the only part of the process that’s slower in computer science, since I haven’t done as many math problem sets or written many programs I don’t have a good idea of how long they are going to take. I’ve found that problem sets and programming code require more time at the end, whereas papers require more time at the beginning. Thinking about a paper and making an outline take the most time (for me at least), but with a math problem set, the first few problems are generally easier, it’s usually the last few that are hardest and take some time. With programs, well I don’t totally know how they work since I’ve only written a few, but I heard someone say that programming consists of writing bugs and fixing them, you have to allow yourself time to write all the bugs and fix all the bugs, and right now it’s really difficult for me to estimate how long it might take to do this. I have faith that given time and practice, this process will become as familiar to me as writing papers.

In the business world (especially in magazines and publications) there seems to be a schism between ‘creative types’ and ‘business types,’ a line I’ve always sought to straddle. People who write and work with art and ideas are considered ‘creative’ and people who work with computers, numbers and spreadsheets are considered ‘business/engineering types.’ I don’t think I should have to pick a side. As a woman of color, though, I do feel some pressure to go where I feel more underrepresented. I’ve never felt the pull of writing that others talk about, but I think I could express myself in the language of computers if I learned it.

The things that will kill us

Cigarettes, mercury, and radium are just three examples of deadly things we once thought were healthy and even medicinal. What are the things we do today that will kill us?

Sci-fi futurists have often imagined an iteration of the future wherein a machine can predict the way you will die, Ryan North and co. have pondered this question recently with the Machine of Death. While he and the Twilight Zone focus on the somewhat absurd, machines in movies like Gattaca focus on the more mundane probabilities, like heart disease. (I’ve always suspected that someone will accidentally lean on the keyboard of such machine, thus spelling my name, and learning my life story)

The big scientific breakthroughs always seem to come as a shock, so I don’t think it’s anything people suspect, TV, cell phones, microwaves, gmo corn, gluten, coffee or sugar. My guess is that sitting and staring at screens all day is a very unhealthy thing that most everyone does; but this is common knowledge. What everyday thing do you think will prove to be a silent killer?

…the Britannica has systematically, relentlessly, eroded my faith in doctors. That’s what will happen when you read page after page of bloody and bloody ridiculous medical history. I knew about leeches and bodily humors but that’s just the start. I’m still unsettled by trepanning—the primitive practice of drilling a 2-inch hole in the skull to let out the evil spirit. I’m sure during the heyday of trepanning the chief resident for trepanning at the Lascaux Grotto Hospital was very authoritative and assured his patients in a condescending tone not to worry about a thing. We’re professionals here, he said, as he smashed their skull with a rock.

Okay so that’s too easy. But medicine here in the postscientific age isn’t much more heartening. Here’s a quote that took me aback: “I believe more patients have died from the use of [surgical] gloves than have been saved by their use.” That’s one of the leading medical experts of the 20th century weighing in on the surgical glove controversy—a controversy I didn’t even know existed. In my encyclopedia, I wrote a little note in ballpoint pen next to that quotation: “Doctors don’t know shit.”

That was an overreaction of course. They do know a little shit.

A. J. Jacobs, The Know-it-All