Real Life Math and Unreal Life Math

In Graham Tattersall’s enjoyable book, Geekspeak: A Guide to Answering the Unanswerable, Making Sense of the Nonsensical, and Solving the Unsolvable, he explains how to calculate all sorts of things you’ve probably never wondered about, like the weight of your head, or how many slaves running on treadmills it would take to keep your electrical appliances going.

If you have an advanced math class, this book could give you a wonderful collection of things to calculate.

It caused me to think about that popular question: “When are we going to need this?”

One of the most common anti-math positions is that people don’t really use things like algebra and trigonometry. In fact, with the ubiquitousness of calculators, there are now plenty of students who feel that people don’t really use things like basic arithmetic any more.

I had an email conversation over the weekend that included algebraic equations, and you probably did, too. But there are people in the world — including a lot of our students, from age eight on up — who think of math as a complete waste of time.

James Kakalios, author of the equally enjoyable book  The Physics of Superheroes, coped with this problem by turning to unreal life. “Interestingly enough,” he says, “whenever I cite examples from superhero comic books in a lecture, my students never wonder when they will use this information in ‘real life.’ Apparently they all have plans, post-graduation, that involve Spandex and protecting the City from all threats.”

The trick, I think, is to move from unreal questions like, “If Sam has three apples and Sally has two apples…” because frankly none of us cares about Sam and Sally’s apples, toward unreal questions like “How can I calculate Superman’s velocity?” Starting your class with questions like these will wake everyone up and give you a fighting chance at getting through the lesson without hearing, “When are we ever going to use this?”

Here are some online sources of unreal life math interesting enough to encourage suspension of disbelief:

  • The Physics of Superheroes has an excerpt from the book linked above which could give you opening work for your advanced math courses for quite a few class periods.
  • A really nice collection of math games and puzzle links.
  • Cynthia Lanius’s fun math collection.
  • The fox, goose, and grapes problem is a classic puzzle.
  • Math Cats is another collection, including projects like calculating exactly how old you are, down to the second.
  • Tristan Miller’s calculation of his chances of finding a girlfriend is both mathematical and amusing. Have your teens read this and see if they agree or disagree, and challenge them to support their position. By the way, following the comments, I wrote and asked Tristan whether he had a girlfriend yet. He assures me that he is still available, and encourages lovely mathematicians to look him up.
  • The probability of dying from various causes, if you’re British, is an interesting way to start your lessons on probability. If you’re not British, you can double the value of this by doing the research needed to calculate the odds for your nation instead.

If you just can’t resist, you could end the discussions of these unreal life math problems with a note on how the calculations in question can relate to real-life circumstances.


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