How I Became a Mathematician – It’s Not As Serious As You Think
I don’t know. I guess it all happened back in high school when a friend of mine called out in algebra class how much he hated logarithms. After that remark, I figured I was in for trouble as I was your average Sylvester Stallone look-alike, and certainly not what you would consider the “math nerd” type. At seventeen I got into bodybuilding. I had the swagger of an Italian kid cast out of the “Lords of Flatbush.” Who would have thought I would ever become a mathematician? But become one, I would.
Even though I had the type-cast build and look, my brain was different-I mean wired differently. At fifteen I started reading Isaac Asimov, and his two books, the “Human Body” and the “Human Brain,” both had a significant impact on me. These books taught me a love for science and soon thereafter I discovered that I just loved learning: the more curious and perplexing, the better. Mysterious things like math soon started getting my attention. Yet I felt totally inadequate to take on such a daunting challenge as to become learned in a field like mathematics. But this I would do.
As I entered freshman year in college, I decided to enroll in a pre-calculus course. Why? I have no clue. It was as though a magnetic field was drawing me into the maelstrom that was swirling about me. Before too long, however, I was very sorry that I got sucked into this whirlpool. The course was driving me nuts and I was totally lost. Not willing to damage my average with anything less than an A, I sought help. I went to everyone and anybody I could who could demystify this arcane subject matter. I sought out study mates and petitioned their efforts to secure any help they could muster for the battle ahead. The battle was tough but ultimately would be won. I would get the A.
After this experience, you might think that I would never subject myself to this suffering again. Not quite. What did I do next? Yes, I enrolled in the next math course up-Calculus. By the time we got to derivatives, I was in Gondwana Land, that is the land of the lost. In fact, I’m sure they named that series of books-you know, the famous ones with the yellow and black covers—-after me. My second lecture test forced me into territory that was unfamiliar to me. My average was now hovering at around the low “C” level. I was humiliated, upset, and extremely frustrated. What could I do?
The subject matter started to terrify me. If I pulled another bad grade on the third lecture test, I would be facing a D grade or even worse, an F. This would ruin my straight-A average and irreparably wreck my self-esteem and confidence. How did I ever get involved with this evil subject? was the internal dialogue coursing through my head, day in and day out.
Then we started a new topic: relative extrema. This is an application of the calculus in which you find the maximum and minimum values of certain functions. A very interesting area, relative extrema have many practical applications such as finding the maximum height of a trajectory launched according to a certain law. You would also use this topic to help determine the maximum profits for a business, let us say, in which the revenue and cost functions were given according to certain laws.
As we plunged into these new unknown waters, something stirred in me that gave me a little pluck. I decided that, since I was half-dead already, I might as well be brazen and wade out a little farther to see if I could find anything useful in these so called untested waters. One night, I decided to take the text book and attempt the homework problems on relative extrema. Just the thought of doing this aroused such anxiety that I had to literally psych myself up to take the book and open it. But open it I did… and the rest as they say is history.
I did the first problem. With reluctance, I opened to the back of the text to check the answer. Having had an abundance of experience with checking the answer and seeing nothing that resembled mine, I was quite shocked to see that this time the book answer agreed. I was shocked, and I must say, elated all at the same time. My pluck started to wax. I had the nerve to try the next problem. After some minutes of intricate calculations-derivative taking, setting equations to zero, and solving-what do you know?-another match.
Without paying attention to the lapsing time, I knocked out the entire homework and did not get a single example wrong. Yes, I was able to finish successfully the entire assignment. I was overjoyed. No. I was not dumb as I came to believe. No. I was not mathematically illiterate, as I came to accept. Yes. I could indulge in the higher spheres of learning, like calculus, philosophy, and science.
The next class session I entered the room, not as a beaten, downtrodden college student, but sort of like Tom Hanks in the movie “Big,” when, after he had spent the night with his coworker, entered his office and barked out to his secretary: “Coffee, black!” All joking aside, I came in like gangbusters, ready to take on any problem at hand. At this point, I was certain that I could whip this calculus thing and get a good grade.
Well, the results of that fateful “calculus homework” night soon became evident because on my next lecture test I got a solid A. The professor wrote, “Great turnaround” on top. Now I was even more energized. Right away, I started filling in the gaps and relearning what I could not get just a few weeks and months earlier in the semester. I mastered the technique of differentiation and the art of integration. I could solve the applied max-min problems and get the right answers. I became a math animal.
By the time the final rolled around, I was ready. Armed and equipped, I ripped through the final like a hot knife through butter. A week later the grade came in the mail. It was a resounding A. I felt like I just pulled off the biggest comeback since the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs came back to beat the Detroit Red Wings after the Wings were up 3-0 pionship, after trailing three games to none.
Of course the thrill of victory only lasted until the next semester, when, after having registered for Calculus II, I started cursing myself for continually subjecting myself to punishment by the math gods. The course focus was integration, and each problem could take hours. I remember the professor would start a problem on a clean blackboard, and before long, there was not an inch of black left. Everything was covered by a mysterious array of symbols, numbers, and other arcana. But… yes you guessed it… I got up the pluck and ultimately pulled out the A. And what did I do next? Of course. I registered for Calculus III. After all, what else is a man to do?
Having gone through the same experience again—albeit, not so painfully—and pulling the A out much like a magician pulls the proverbial rabbit out of the hat, the epiphany hit me. I was destined to become a mathematician. So rather than fight the math gods anymore, I went to my guidance counselor and made the commitment to get my degree in mathematics. Now, a couple of dozen years later, I am a worldwide-read author of math ebooks, expert tutor, acclaimed writer, and teacher of all levels of mathematics—and of course, a pretty cool dude. So yes, you can be a mathematician and be somewhat normal. At least that’s what I think. You might have a different opinion.