Sunday, September 20, 2015

So, you never use Algebra anymore?

Fall officially arrives at 3:20 AM on Wednesday, well Astronomical Fall that is. “Wait a minute,” you say, “the weather guy says that Fall has been here since the first of September!” Well, yes that is correct too. They are talking about Meteorological Fall, which occurs on the first of the month that contains the astronomical season change. Not only that but when you look up the equinox you discover that Fall comes at 8:20 AM Universal Time (UT). OK, now to calculate the time zone difference. Ummm let’s see… 9 divided by 5, carry the three except in odd numbered years – oh yes; 4:20 AM Eastern Daylight Savings time, give or take a few waves of cesium radiation. Yes, it changes between daylight time and standard time. It’s all so confusing, now we have dueling seasons as well as dueling times! So much math!

Of course, I’m kidding about the time calculation above, but the point is that life was simpler and we all knew that seasons changed somewhere around the 21st of March, June, September or December. It is not like there was a flash of lightning and a crash of thunder when the sun crossed the equator or reversed direction. The day before the season change was pretty much the same as the day after. Do we really need all this accuracy? Too much math?

Or do we? There is this internet meme that says “I haven’t used Algebra since middle school. Everybody “likes” and “shares” that funny picture without realizing that they do use Algebra, Geometry and even Calculus every day in their day to day life. Huh! Really!

Yup, really! Take driving for example, your eye is constantly estimating distance and angles between you and the cars around you; algebra and trigonometry! In addition your brain is integrating those real time images to calculate rates of change (acceleration and deceleration) and sends signals to your hands and feet to guide them when to turn, accelerate and brake to keep clear. Without all this going on, we would all be playing bumper cars all the time and paying a lot more in insurance.

Case in point; last week I observed a fender bender where I was following a car driving in the left lane past a line of cars stopping and going in the right lane. As we approached a side street, there was a gap in the right lane traffic and a car suddenly popped out into the left lane so close to the car in front of me that he could not stop or swerve and the result was two shaken up commuters and a bunch of debris in the highway. Oops, someone made a several thousand dollar math error!

It is true that there were a couple of other factors that contributed. The sky was crystal clear and the driver at fault was looking almost directly into the sun. I could clearly see that driver was squinting, and that changed his optical geometry (OMG is geometry involved too?) which does effect perceived distances. Under bright conditions, the iris contracts which affects depth and distance perception. That is a pretty geeky way of saying that the crossing car was a lot closer to the car in front of me than its driver calculated.

Boom! The result was a demonstration of Newton's Second Law; F = ma; Force equals mass times acceleration. All you physics’ geeks out there, give me a “high five!” What, physics’ geeks don’t do “high fives?” Sure!

So, the consequences of the math error are exactly the same as those for failure to yield right of way; a fine, and insurance headaches for that unfortunate driver and being late for work for everyone else.

Here’s another thought for you; everyone that bakes is using chemistry! Yup, the chemistry is getting the ratio of the combination of ingredients and the temperature of the oven right. We have all seen what happens when something is not measured correctly and it is just ugly.

Did you ever think of a quarterback throwing a pass as a math genius? Well, his brain calculates the distance to the receiver, the force of gravity on the ball and the effects of the wind on the ball while aloft. Then it calculates the force he needs to pass on to the ball and the angle of his arm at the point of release, the amount of rotation to add to the ball as he releases it and how far to lead the receiver so the ball hits him between the numbers where he will be then the ball gets there. Yup, that’s algebra, trigonometry and calculus all at once.

Flashing back to that tortuous middle school math class, I bet you didn’t know that you were already a math genius, did you? We are all smarter than we think! Can I have a “high five?” Oh MY!

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