25 April 2007

Sine, sine, everywhere a sine

Back about a million years ago, when things like math weighed heavily on mind, I received a calculator for Christmas. In those days, a calculator was a pretty nifty piece of equipment. It was more portable than the alternatives--abacus, slide rule--and it was utterly cool because it was like holding a computer in your hand (why, yes, this was before the advent of the PC, back in the days when a computer still took up the better part of an industrial park and required its own air-conditioning system).

Calculators, in those days, were not for the masses. They were way too expensive for one thing (in 1978, $25 meant something!), and only serious students of College Algebra and Trigonometry would even think of owning one. Besides, it wasn't like you could find them at the grocery store, or anything.

The seriousness of my own mathematical endeavors was brought home to my parents that winter when, during a horrendous bout with influenza, they found me feverishly trying to solve a trigonometric equation for creamed corn and stewed tomatoes. Hence, a brand new TI-30 was waiting under the tree for me a week later.

I cannot stress enough here that the cost in dollars of that thing was pretty profound for my family. That gift was an announcement to the world that my family believed I was going to Do Something with my life.

And I did. I did really well in both Trigonometry and College Algebra. I did pretty well in Calculus. I did pretty well in Egyptian Calculations. Then I went on to major in Comparative Literature after firmly turning my back on the Foreign Service. Really. No room in this life for math beyond calculating how much paint it would take to paint my dorm room.

Karma and interesting gifts that go underused do have a propensity for turning around and biting one on the rear, however. Some years later, I was reviewing a paper, that luck would have it, revolved around a very precise trigonometric equation, which happened, in this case, to be very precisely wrong. It frightened me that I recognized the incorrectness. It frightened me that I remembered that much trigonometry. It scared the living hell out of me that I was using the one thing I was quite certain I would never use in my entire life--ADVANCED MATH!

At that point it was all over. Not long after, I was working for a science and engineering company, happily pointing out mathematical errors (as well as the logical and grammatical errors running rampant) to the principal scientists and engineers. At least it all involved dust and heavy metals and mold as opposed to creamed corn and stewed tomatoes.

Insidiously, though, it creeps further into my middle age. Recently, the son asked for help with exponents. "Er, go ask your father," I told him, unwilling to admit that yes, indeedy, I could help him with algebra.

"Don't you have a calculator that I could use?" he asked, a little desperately.

"Not one that does exponents," I told him in horror, waving my $6, fashionably purple, solar-batteried, huge keyed only-does-addition-subtraction-multiplication-and-division calculator under his little nose.

Two days later, though, there it was at Albertsons, next to the crayons. The TI-30XA. $15.49, the cost of a large cheese pizza.

Of course, I bought one, and I left it, lying in triumph, on the son's bed. He, too, is doomed.