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Monday, July 18, 2011

A guest post from Camille Minichino--DO THE MATH

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:


  1. I've read Camille Minichino's books for longer then I've read yours, and I just got quite the thrill out of the fact that you know each other. Her books got me hooked on See's chocolates! Not sure if they'd get me hooked on math, but I'm willing to be open-minded about it. :)

  2. Oh, and I do love Agatha Christie...I was reading her when I was 14! My mother was big in to literature, but not so much into math... :P

  3. Of course, I know Camille. We physics people always find each other. We have our ways...

  4. My prof husband was stunned when he realized some of his students could not fathom how to use a slide rule. Most now would not have seen one. Sad.

  5. Thanks, Michelle! And, yes, there's a great sisterhood of the traveling slide rules, as Mary Anna indicates!

    Also the second Sophie book, The Probability of Murder, comes out at the same time next spring as Mary Anna's Mathematical Literacy in the Middle and Secondary Grades, so watch for the team!

  6. Alas, Liz, but I never used a slide rule in school, and I'm no spring chicken. (I started college in 1979, way back when we used punch cards for our FORTRAN programs, which is only one or two steps less old-school than a slide rule.) I've seen a couple of them, and I certainly understand the logarithmic coolness of how they work, but I've never gotten a chance to fool around with one. My grandfather earned his mechanical engineering degree in 1929, and I had hopes of inheriting his slide rules and compasses and such, but my uncle the industrial engineer got them. Darn.

  7. Camille, this song caught my ear when my daughter was piping her iPod through my car radio. I looked up the lyrics, fearing that a song entitled, "Please Don't Tell Me to Do the Math," couldn't be a good thing from your point of view or mine. As it turns out, I think it's just a set of generally rebellious teenage lyrics, although I'm not completely sure about that. Check 'em out.

    Don't Tell Me To Do The Math(s)

    We know that we could sell your magazines, if only you would give your life to literature just

    Work on your algebra, stand out in the rain and give yourself to simple pleasures but

    Meanwhile, back at home, not in Communist Russia, well only on my headphones, we plot our march onto the town hall, and if we'd take prisoners or simply simper at those fools

    Please don't tell me to do the math

    Tonight we're gonna smash this place up and then we're gonna deck it out with fairy lights so

    And then we'll maybe drown in Dewey decimal, but leave our shoes off at the door ‘cause


    Of us at home with the moon pouring through the curtains, working on our attitude towards the second hand book shop employees, reading the inscriptions that were never meant for their eyes.

    Please don't tell me to do the math

    I'm stitching up each one of your pockets so when we are together you'll maybe look a little less bored, I'm sticking your fingers into sockets, to kick-start your little heart and maybe sleep a tiny bit more.

    Oh maybe we should read more into the books that we adore, perhaps we should drink less vitamin C, and now I'm shouting out in capital letters “I WILL THROW YOU HIGH FIVES IF YOU KEEP YOUR OWN SECRETS!!”

  8. Wow, lyrics were much simpler in my day! I'm not sure there's even a math message in that set! Imagine the tag lines: commie, fairies, fever, library . . .

    I wrote the code for my thesis in FORTRAN 2D. Imagine! And the computer and peripherals took up just about a whole floor of the building. Then there was the Bendix for calculations -- it looked like a refrigerator!

    I love my iMac.

  9. I wrote the code for my thesis in FORTRAN 77. This was a step up from the WATFIV that I learned originally. :)

    It took that program two hours to run on a mainframe I never saw because it was located in some building across campus. I'm pretty sure I could run it in a second on the phone in my pocket. Times do change...

  10. Ah the good old days...I used to operate a PDP computer that used punch cards and took up a whole room...

    I also learned to use a slide rule in high school. Does that make me older? Or just wiser? :)

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  12. I have given a couple of "historical" lectures to students and faculty about the slide rule and its use - rarely is there a faculty member in the room who knows how to use one. My dentist (who regularly tells me he wishes he had studied math instead of dentistry) told me his son did a school science project on the slide rule - using dad's old slide rule - my reaction was "you're older than I thought". I have my father's slide rule - he was an engineer - family heirlooms passed down through the generations.