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Are you an innumerate?

If you think the Empire State Building is a mile high, then you have a bad case of mathematical illiteracy,- Professor John Paulos would like to help,

Quick-what's the difference between 1 million, 1 billion, and 1 trillion? You're in trouble if you respond with something like "What's the difference when the figures get that high?"

If you think the Empire State Building is about a mile high, plead quilty again. You're an innumerate.

Help, however, is at hand, Meet the oxymoronic John Allen Paulos, a wittv mathematics professor who quotes philosophers, devours novels, once did a stand-up comedy act in a Philadelphia club, and passionately hopes his fifthgrade math teacher reads his latest book. He's also a man who doesn't think the world would be a better place if we were all able to work quadratic equations,

"Come up to the fifth floor," he instructs a visitor, "and go to room. . . . This is rather embarrassing, given the subject of the book, but it's either room 540 or 542."

A huge poster of Bertrand Russell, one of his idols, looks over his shoulder as he works. A pyramid of empty blue and magenta Hawaiian Punch cans, fun to move around in different configurations, rests quietly now in a garish display on his windowsill.

Paulos, a 43-year-old Temple University professor, has written Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, a book whose title would not compel the ordinary reader to snap it off the shelf. But it's fun, and Paulos tells you it's O.K. to skip the tough parts.

One of the tough parts is the title itself. The word "innumeracy," which means the inability to deal comfortably with the fundamental notions of number and chance, has been in usage in England since the 1950s, Paulos says. He first came across it in an article in Scientific American"It will be in American dictionaries soon," he says. "Dan Rather has used it a few times and that's got to be an imprimatur." [Editor's note- "Innumerate" is an entry in the 1988 Random House Dictionary of the English Language.]

But back to that first question. Throughout the book, Paulos has a knack of breaking things down into easily grasped units. He wants people to have a sense of the vast difference among members of the "-illion" family. He suggests you look at it this way: One million seconds takes about 11 days to tick by. A billion seconds would take almost 32 years. A trillion seconds equals 32,000 years.

Paulos says he sometimes asks his freshman students how high the Empire State Building is."I don't want them to go and look it up," he says. "I just want to know about their sense of proportion and scale. I would consider 1,000 feet a correct answer-even 2,000 feet, because it's in the range. [Actual footage is 1,200 feet.] But if a student said 50 feet or a mile, he has no sense of what a mile is, what a mile is like straight up in the air."

Paulos, who teaches freshmen as well as graduate stu- dents, is a recognized expert in symbolic logic, computer languages, and artificial intelligence. Reared in Milwaukee, he describes himself as a bright kid but very shy.

"This is a book for educated people," he says. Paulos notes that he once accompanied his wife, a former French teacher turned romance novelist, to the doctor to learn more about a minor procedure she was facing.

"Within 20 minutes, the doctor said there was only a million-to-one shot of something going wrong, that it was a 99 percent safe procedure, and then he said that it usually went quite well," he says. When Paulos tried to explain to the physician that he had just said three entirely different things, he was met with a grim stare and incomprehension. "Even in their areas of expertise, people just use numbers, not knowing what they mean," he says.

Paulos has met with blank stares before. When he did the comedy-club act, one of his jokes had to do with the sign suggesting citizens put litter where it belongs. Paulos pointed out that if people did that, it would no longer be litter-it would be garbage. Litter, he pointed out, is litter only when it is littering.

Not too many chuckles. "Actually, most of it went quite well, but some of it was a little too cerebral for the club," he says.

He also gets blank stares when he quips that something selling at "fraction of its normal cost" probably is and that the fraction is four-thirds.

Paulos' quixotic quest is serious, He feels that innumeracy contributes to a lack of skepticism and lack of critical thinking, which lead to poor life decisions.

50 feet or a mile, he has no sense of what a mile is, what a

mile is like straight up in the air."

Paulos, who teaches freshmen as well as graduate students, is a recognized expert in symbolic logic, computer languages, and artificial intelligence. Reared in Milwaukee, he describes himself as a bright kid but very shy.

"This is a book for educated people," he says. Paulos notes that he once accompanied his wife, a former French teacher turned romance novelist, to the doctor to learn more about a minor procedure she was facing.

"Within 20 minutes, the doctor said there was only a million-to-one shot of something going wrong, that it was a 99 percent safe procedure, and then he said that it usually went quite well," he says. When Paulos tried to explain to the physician that he had just said three entirely different things, he was met with a grim stare and incomprehension. "Even in their areas of expertise, people just use numbers, not knowing what they mean," he says.

Paulos has met with blank stares before. When he did the comedy-club act, one of his jokes had to do with the sign suggesting citizens put litter where it belongs. Paulos pointed out that if people did that, it would no longer be litter-it would be garbage. Litter, he pointed out, is litter only when it is littering.

Not too many chuckles. "Actually, most of it went quite well, but some of it was a little too cerebral for the club," he says.

He also gets blank stares when he quips that something selling at "fraction of its normal cost" probably is and that the fraction is four-thirds.

Paulos' quixotic quest is serious. He feels that innumeracy contributes to a lack of skepticism and lack of critical thinking, which lead to poor life decisions. A
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Title Annotation:John Paulos's book on mathematical illiteracy
Author:Bartlett, Kay
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Sep 1, 1989
Words:1103
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