It is a commonly accepted truth among writers that we are biologically incapable of understanding math. Sure, we can (in most cases) keep our checkbooks balanced and, without batting an eye, calculate how much a writing assignment is worth in dollars-per-word.
But those are very specific money-related skills useful for keeping our landlords at bay and our electricity turned on. And more importantly, they do not require even a beginner’s-level understanding of algebra or (heaven forbid!) calculus. Basic addition won’t kill us and multiplication (up to 11 at least) is rote due to our elementary school days spent memorizing times tables. But subtraction starts to get for us a bit hairy, and division—well, that road leads only to pain.
I have a secret, however: I think math is fascinating and beautiful. Mathematics is, as Carl Sagan would remind us, the one universal language; even more, it is the language of our world, of nature—the language of God, some would say—line after line of elegant equations pulsing through the current of life and providing the only real boundaries and rules to the giant sandbox we play in called Earth. You see, I find following along with a manipulation of numbers to be meditative. Math done well is effortlessly logical and fluid.
Make no mistake; I’m terrible at math of almost any kind, especially algebra. But just as I can appreciate the beauty of a Miles Davis trumpet solo without any skill on the trumpet myself, so can I appreciate math without the ability to add two-digit numbers in my head.
So when I stumbled on Terry Moore’s short talk from TED2012 titled “Why is ‘X’ the unknown?” I found myself hoping the title referred to the algebraic variable and not the brilliant 80s punk band featuring John Doe. And when I start blowing off classic punk rock, it must be serious.
In fact, Moore’s talk gives us a brief version of the origin story for the mathematical representation of the unknown, the answer to a question we’ve all asked, he says. And it all begins thousands of years ago in the first centuries of the Common Era during which time the Arabs, Persians and Turks were busying themselves inventing modern mathematics.
Moore is the director of the Radius Foundation, an organization seeking “new ways of exploring and understanding dissimilar conceptual systems or paradigms – scientific, religious, philosophical, and aesthetic – with the aim of achieving a worldview of more penetrating insight and richer innovation.” In 2005, Moore taught everyone at TED how to tie his or her shoes.
I’ll let Moore himself tell you the history of X and algebra. He does it far more justice than I ever could. This is four minutes you won’t regret spending. But please don’t be frightened away by the talk’s relationship with math. Approach math as you would a difficult piece of music and you may find a richer experience.
Written by Ryan Schill / Contributor
Ryan Schill is the assistant editor at the Center for Sustainable Journalism, specializing in investigative, feature and literary journalism. He tweets occasionally at @rpschill.