Here's a guest post from my friend and fellow physics-and-math person Camille Minichino. She's starting a brand-new mystery series featuring Sophie Knowles, a college math teacher, and you know I'm gonna love that one. Even better, she's talking about a relic--her old slide rule--and I love relics so much that I wrote a book called Relics. Listen as Camille tells us why doing the math is so important...
Do the Math
By Camille Minichino, aka Ada Madison
Here I am with a relic—the slide rule I bought at the MIT store. It cost me a week's pay—$35—sometime in the middle of the last century. It got me through a mathematics major and a few graduate physics classes before an enormous, clunky IBM 1620 came in and took over.
My newest protagonist, Professor Sophie Knowles, math teacher at a small New England college, probably wouldn't know which end is up on the foot long slide rule, nor would she have the patience to sit for hours entering her data on error-prone punch cards.
Math education has changed since my college days. Whew. Welcome, technology!
We've also come a long way since Sophie's namesake, eighteenth-century mathematician Sophie St. Germain, had to hide behind a man's name to get the math community to pay attention to her. Or since nineteenth-century German university policy allowed Emmy Noether only to audit classes in mathematics and then, once she passed doctoral exams anyway, allowed her to teach only without pay.
The real Ada, Countess Ada Lovelace, was another story entirely. To keep her from going the creatively manic route of her father, Lord Byron, Ada's mother encouraged her to study mathematics. Ada went a little too far, trying to use her math skills to win at gambling, and . . . didn't.
So we've made some progress along gender lines, but women are still underrepresented in engineering, science, and math.
And not much has changed as far as the perception of math. It still gets bad press, from both genders. Math is thought of as a difficult subject, requiring a special brain typically belonging to boring people. Even in educated circles, math illiteracy is often worn as a badge.
The same person who would never say, "I hate reading," or "I can't do words," doesn't hesitate to say, "I can't do math," and sound proud of it.
Where does this attitude start? Maybe with dolls that say, "I don't like math." Or with celebrities like Angelina Jolie, who tells a little girl struggling with her homework, "I hate math" ("Salt," 2010). Or with the Michigan teacher I heard about who told her middle school class, "If you behave yourselves this morning, you won't have to do math this afternoon." (AAARRGH, if I knew her name; I'd make her a slimy villain in my next book.)
What can we do?
Enter Professor Sophie Knowles. I can't fix everything that's wrong with the levels of science and math literacy among our citizens, but I can certainly use my writing skills to present another option: a smart female mathematician who loves puzzles, beads, has a hot boyfriend who's an EMT pilot and an ice climber, and who applies her flair for logic to solving murders.
Here's my hope: that readers who would otherwise shun a book with math in the title will be attracted to Sophie and enjoy her stories.
Another title aimed at reaching non-math-lovers and helping them see the beauty of the subject is Mathematical Literacy in the Middle and Secondary Grades by my gracious blog host, Mary Anna Evans, coming in Spring 2012. Mary Anna and her co-author Dr. Faith Wallace have teamed to create a book that brings into the math classroom things kids love to read and do--things like computer games, social media, and popular fiction like Mary Anna's and mine--so that their teachers can help them relate mathematics to their own world. Tell all your math teacher friends to give it a look.
If you need more prompting to go all John Lennon and Give Math a Chance, consider this endorsement, uttered by no less a figure (so to speak) than Agatha Christie, in her An Autobiography:
"I continued to do arithmetic with my father, passing proudly through fractions to decimals. I eventually arrived at the point where so many cows ate so much grass, and tanks filled with water in so many hours. I found it quite enthralling."
If it's good enough to enthrall Dame Agatha, it's good enough for me.
Camille Minichino is the author of three mystery series. Her akas are Margaret Grace (The Miniature Mysteries) and Ada Madison (The Professor Sophie Knowles Mysteries). The first chapter of ‘The Square Root of Murder,” debuting July 5, is on her website: http://www.minichino.com