Another Perspective

The Language of God

Or why I am not a Wall Street billionaire.

By 6.4.10

"I never did very well in math," said Calvin Trillin. "I could never seem to persuade the teacher that I hadn't meant my answers literally."

Trillin suffered a complaint familiar to many writers: a sensitivity to mathematics. It's like the sensitivity some people have to dairy products, only we can still enjoy a nice Frappuccino now and then. The pain comes when we have to add up the tip.

One reason I went into journalism was I had to find a profession where math would not be an issue. Sadly, this ruled out everything that would allow me to make a decent living: stockbroker, accountant, office manager, carpenter, life insurance salesman.

In college, I was required to pass two math courses to obtain a bachelor of science degree, and because of that I almost didn't graduate. I spent every afternoon of my junior and senior years in a math tutor's office. I could follow along for approximately two minutes, then my brain would lock up and all I could hear was a drone that sounded like a muffled recording of a 1950s Ways and Means Committee hearing. At the last moment, I switched from a bachelor of science to a bachelor of arts degree, which required only one math class. Finally, in my last semester, I passed college algebra. I got a D-.

Now that I am a journalist, my editor seems determined to give me all of the stories that involve math: budget stories, tax assessment stories, follow-the-money stories. I keep telling him that if I had been any good with numbers I sure as hell wouldn't have gone into the lowest-paying profession on the planet. I would have gone to work on Wall Street. I'd be racking up millions at Goldman Sachs committing securities fraud.

"You're a professional," my editor says dismissively. "And let's make that budget story a series."

I hate my editor.

A lot of people think mathematics, particularly the higher math, a waste of time. After all, how often does one use lambda calculus in every day life? I mean, unless you are one of those pajama guys who spend all day trying to hack into the Pentagon's computers. I suppose you could say the same thing about a lot of stuff you studied in school. How often do you use facts about medieval history in everyday life, and if you say "quite often" that's probably the reason you spend every night alone on the couch watching Battlestar Galactica reruns.

I don't think that way at all. I wish I knew more math. I am constantly struggling with numerical problems. If all of my woodworking projects look like they were designed for the set of a 1920s German Expressionist film it is because I never quite mastered the whole fraction thing. I know what a half of something is, maybe even a quarter, but smaller than that and I end throwing up my hands and exclaiming, "Good enough for government work."

If I am a good tipper and always leave 20 percent -- even when the waiter slaps my date on the butt -- it is because I can usually figure out 20 percent of the bill (take the first number and double it, right?), whereas trying to figure 15 percent (or God help me 17.5) would leave me as confused as a hungry baby in a topless bar.

I WON'T EVEN try to do my income taxes anymore. Tax time used to put me in an angry, foul mood for weeks. All those state and federal forms were like some kind of SAT test that was all math and no essay portion where I could tell the government where to stick it. The least the IRS could do is make the form multiple choice. At least then I'd have a small chance of getting some of the answers right.

I suspect that my mathematical weakness, like my poor eyesight, is genetic. My parents were average math students at best, and my siblings seem nearly as inept at math as I am. They, too, have all gone on to professions where the ability to add sums is not a requirement: social work, English teaching, lawyering.

Fortunately, my son has inherited none of my arithmetical inaptitude. His mother is a mathematical wizard, which must have been why I married her. My hope is that whatever gene is responsible for my mathematical ineptness dies with me.

Galileo famously said that mathematics was the language God used to write the universe. Great, with my luck, I'll have to pass some kind of geometry test to get into heaven.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.