Atheist Life Hacks: How To Use Algebra In The Real World

You know when you’re showering and with the lack of distractions, something brilliant suddenly dawns on you? Shower thoughts. There’s a subreddit for those, too. The other day, while perusing r/showerhtoughts, I read this:

After 20+ years I am finally using algebra in the real world!!!!! …to help my daughter with her algebra homework. from Showerthoughts

and I laughed. I can’t count the number of times I wanted to jam my mechanical pencil in my eye during math class as a student. I’ve always been more of a grey area sort of person; I did well in subjects where I had to express an opinion or hone my ability to interpret the world around me. Black and white, yes and no, right and wrong, precise answers for precise questions… that’s where I struggled. Math class is where I really developed the colourful side of my vocabulary because that shit was full-on torture.

You know what I’m talking about. Admit it, most of you have all felt that. You’ve all been struggling to keep your eyes open through a math lecture about obscure equations that no right-minded human is ever going to use outside of the class. You’ve found yourself wondering what sadistic educator in darker times decided subjecting kids to this torture was a good idea. You’ve muttered creative language under your breath as you tried to recall complicated functions during final exams. Even if you enjoyed math as a student, you had these moments. I know you did.

MathFor the most part, it’s true, too. We graduate and move on with life and we never seem to have to recall any of those prickly equations again. Unless we go into math-related careers, there’s just never really any manifestation in our day-to-day lives of the more complicated algebra we learned in grade school.

I’m not going to lie to you fine little heretics, I spent years after high school believing they only did that to students because they clearly hated us. Old people were just bitter at the expiration of their youth and so they took it out on those of us who still had it, forcing us to stay inside on warm sunny days clawing our way through problems that no one would ever need solve for any other reason. I thought for sure there was no purpose to learning the higher levels of algebra that were crammed down our throats.

I was wrong, though, as I have been with so many other things. When you’re young, you tend to think everything you don’t like is clearly just there for the sadistic pleasure of grown-ups. Broccoli, pulp in orange juice, and algebra. They clearly just bring us into this world to laugh at our pain.

I realized I was wrong one night in Xpu Ha – a tiny little tropical beach in the Mayan Riviera. I’d had a few beers and myself and a few family friends had just witnessed a sea turtle come in to lay its eggs. The sky was a blanket of stars twinkling above us, as we sat on bamboo cots and discussed the universe. We talked about how all the light from all those stars was coming at us from the past. We discussed how scientists calculate how old that light is, and how far back humans have been able to see. We chatted until the tiniest hours of morning when one friend piped up,

“Sure, that math is useful for people considering astrophysics or engineering or something like that, but does a line cook like me really need to know advanced algebra?”

We cracked jokes about how none of us had ever used any of that math we were forced to get through in high school until finally, the aviation enthusiast and career flight path planner among us argued,

“Yes, you do. You use it every day.”

“I do not! I’m not talking about fractions or percentages or anything else we got through in elementary school. I mean actual algebra. I’ve never used it once since I left high school.”

“Yeah, you have.” The flight planner said.

The line cook cocked his head to the side, shrugged and looked around for support.

“Just hear him out,” I said. “How do we use algebra everyday?”

And that’s when he explained it to us. Learning math, of any kind, isn’t just about the math itself. Sure, we need to know basic math like addition and subtraction to get through our day-to-day lives. But learning math beyond that is about training your brain. Learning how to solve algebraic equations is an exercise in logical thought. Algebra teaches us to problem solve and there’s not a single one of us who doesn’t have to solve problems every single day.

Math is how we condition our minds to think logically. Math, in all it’s infuriating glory, can lead to critical thought, skepticism and reason. My lovely little hellbound baby-eaters, math could be why you’re an atheist.

My mind was blown wide open that night. I went from one end of the spectrum to the other. I had always thought that all those high school math classes were just more evidence grown-ups hated teenagers. Now, I understand the undeniable fact that math, I’m so sorry kids, is probably the most important subject any of us have learned beyond the basics.

Now, when my son or step-daughter gets grouchy about their math homework, I tell them it’s not about the numbers in front of you, it’s about what those numbers are training your brain to be capable of.

I tell them that if they just fight through the frustration, math is going to make them smarter,

“You may not use the math itself in the real world, but that math is going to train your brain to be able to navigate that real world like a boss.”

“Yeah right,” they say, rolling their eyes. “Clearly the only purpose of this math is to torture us.”

On a scale of one to pi, how much did you loathe math as a student? Let me know in the comments!



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  • thompjs

    A long time ago I was on flight to Hawaii from San Fran and the flight attendants announced a contest on “guessing” the time we would be at the halfway point. They spit out a bunch of numbers of time of departure and speeds, etc.

    Well, I just made a system of equations on a napkin and solved them. Flight attendant announced me as the winner to the minute. They seemed surprised. Won a bottle of champagne. It is useful in everyday life

  • cary_w

    Interestingly enough, I love math for exactly the same reasons you hated it. It infuriated me to be graded on opinions and how you interpret things because it meant there was NOT a definitive right answer. You finish a math problem and it’s either right or wrong, and if it’s wrong you can go back and find the step where you made a mistake and fix it. Math was my security blanket because it seemed to be the only place in my life where rules were never broken and, if you followed them in a logical order, you were guaranteed to get the right answer. I hated writing because it was so subjective, i’d get poor grades with vague recommendations like “express yourself more” or “add more color”. How the hell do you do that?

    My love of math, logic and wanting definitive answers probably did contribute to my atheism (that and almost never being taken to church or taught any religious doctrine). It’s why I can’t accept all the supernatural nonsense that is the basis of most religions. Just have faith, they say. Really? Who needs faith when you can have real, honest to goodness answers!

    Also, while it’s gratifying to see an adult who hated math finally see the light, I have a slight bone to pick with you about not “using” math. You may not be working equations every day, but you are using the results of other people knowing math multiple times every day. Your computer, the programs you run on it, the structural supports that hold your house up, the clean water coming out of your faucet, the wastewater plant that treats your sewage, the medicines you last took, your car and all its safety features; all of that is here because somebody learned math and applied it to the science and technology required to create all those things.

    I hope your kids learn math well enough to appreciate the logic and puzzle-solving aspects of it. It will help them with all kinds of problem solving and critical thinking in the future, and if they don’t learn it, it will almost certainly shut them out of all kinds of fascinating science and tech careers that they have probably never even thought about yet.

  • Jim

    It took me a while to realize it, but math is everything. In public school, math was presented in a manner that made it seem difficult, so I never bonded with math. I became a musician after graduation and I studied at a conservatory that had an electronic music studio. Since I excelled at electronic music, I got phoned at home one day to join a project at a well-known Ivy League university that had the goal of discovering the physical attributes that enabled the human ear to identify and discriminate between different instruments.

    The work was intensely mathematical and it caused me to groan inwardly. At some point, one of the other participants pointed out how easy the connections were made and all of a sudden, I understood. I really got it and flew with it. I could do advanced calculus and immediately hear the results.

    It was perhaps the most eye-opening event in my life. Math is the only human activity which can actually play with the infinite. There are no gods, and math could one day prove it.

    Thanks for your post.

  • Algebra wasn’t my friend at school and it still isn’t. I preferred geometry 🙂