An MIT professor just published a book in which she recounts the stories of her students about the moment when they first came to science in a personal, meaningful way. As I was listening to the story on NPR I remembered my flash of inspiration in 6th grade at Horace Mann Elementary School. We'd recently had the first ever Earth Day, and I caught the fervor.

Electricity was the concern then, and we were all about turning out lights as the only remedy available. Until, of course, my eleven-year-old brain hit the scene. "Mr. Miller, let's just reproduce the chemical reaction that produces light in fireflies, put it in a bulb, and we have electric-less light." Presto. Just give me my Nobel Prize now, thank you.

What? What do you mean, how do we get all that magnesium? Trigger the reaction continuously? Fiddle-de-dee, I came up with the idea. It's up to you (a non-specified you) to figure out how to implement the idea. Don't bother me with the details, I have more thinking to do.

Then I remembered that, in fact, I had a scientific moment three years earlier, in Social Studies class. Our books illustrated how factories could purify their exhaust smoke to help reduce pollution. My hand started waving in the air, "Mrs. Wakeland, couldn't you take the purified steam and run it underground to heat the streets? It would stop the need for salt trucks, and there wouldn't be any accidents."

She encouraged me to write up my proposition in a letter to the President (my first of many to the Nixon family), and Steve Wisely (where are you now Steve? You gave me a beautiful May Basket that year which I've never forgotten) drew the accompanying schematic.

Sadly my brilliant ideas remained just ideas, but I kept my interest in science, and even harbored the thought of becoming a geneticist and curing disease (well, that is, if I couldn't make it as an actress). And then I met higher mathematics.

I was pretty good with basic arithmetic. I always needed pen and paper, but I could usually figure out the answer. When, however, math started including letters as well as numbers, I couldn't make the leap. I suppose I could if I'd really tried, but I lost interest - I might need to know how many are left when you subtract 84 from 156, but who cares what equals X?

Math was math, science was science, and the twain didn't meet soon enough to make a difference. And real life applications didn't enter the equation at all (pun intended).

And then came knitting.

I first became aware of the math of knitting in the 1980s at The Knit & Needlepoint Shop. Charlotte could take any pattern, or photo, or idea, then take your measurements and gauge, and write out the directions in less than an hour. Her patterns always fit perfectly, and yardage was spot on. It was a sad day when the shop closed.

I had to do the math myself, and to my surprise, I found I could do it with reliable results. Sure, every once in a while I err, but mostly the math prevails. I still use pen and paper, and bejewelled calculator I inherited from my mother. If truth be told, I use the calculator even when I don't need to (I still remember my times tables), just for the pleasure of touching the sparkly jewels and remembering my mother trying to balance her checkbook!

I could make my own patterns, just like Charlotte. I designed a sweater for the Ravelry Knitting Olympics,

another for my not-at-all-wicked-stepmother,

a hat that requires you to do math, and countless modifications of other patterns (pun intended again).

Now that I'm undaunted by the math, maybe I'll go back to the task of saving the planet.

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Hi there rms. I love this post and now I have questions.

ReplyDeleteI'd say I'm pretty new to knitting, and I had no idea that people actually wrote patterns based on someone's size and gauge. Now that I hear about it, it makes perfect sense. Are there any online resources that can teach me how to make patterns?

I also love the hat. Do you have a pattern you are willing to share?

Finally, I should let you know that I am a math teacher. I'm glad that you found a meaningful application of math in your own life. :-)

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