Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Occupational Hazards

Mathematicians have the circle-squarers and angle-trisectors. These are amateur mathematicians who have heard that among the unsolved problems of Greek antiquity are creating a square with the same area as a given circle, and splitting a given angle into three equal parts, with a straightedge and compass. They play with it and work on it and eventually come up with something they are convinced solves the problem, usually unaware that it's been proven for a very long time that these things just can't be done.

And then there are those who have a new, short proof of something like Fermat's Last Theorem, which was recently proved by Andrew Wiles in something like 100 pages or so. Or maybe a proof of the Riemann Hypothesis, which is currently unproved (or un-disproved, depending on how it all turns out). Mathematicians get these things in the mail, or probably now in their email, maybe two or three a year. People hope to have solved the "big problem." They almost never do.

Writers, dramatists, producers, and publishers all have their "will you read my manuscript?" people. And there it is, in a manila envelope (if it fits in just one), full of hopes and flowery prose and reading like, well, like this blog, probably. People hope to have written the next great book/play/script. They almost never do.

And don't get me started about vitamins, strange tropical berry juices, or herbal supplements. They almost never solve any big health problems. Sorry, and sorry for your downline, but it's true.

Math Educators like me have this: "I've developed a math curriculum based on using the abacus. All the kids I've tried it on jump 3 grade levels, and their parents want to canonize me." And they can't understand why you aren't excited, getting out your wallet, writing a check or something.


Most of the time, the proofs get thrown away, the manuscripts go unread, and the juices finally get thrown away. And most of the time, the new curriculum gets ignored, because we're pretty sure that this particular curriculum, like almost any curriculum, works great on wealthy suburban kids, and somehow fails to do its magic with inner-city poor kids.

And the moral of all four stories is, unfortunately, "It really is harder than you think."

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