From the archives: Posted on 25th January, 2000
A reader asked:
After visiting the “Puzzling Parenting” stuff, I went to the Taking Children Seriously site and read Sarah’s wonderful article about math(s). It got me wondering. I am imagining a kid, no – a family of three kids. The kids are, um, 10, 12 & 15. The parents have resisted the urge to push academics on them. They have not done any academic math(s). They play video games, chat on the internet, build lego stuff, build tree-houses, etc. Would somebody write for me a description of life from here on? Tell me a story, that includes the 15 year old becoming a scientist. I am just having trouble picturing them starting math so late… Would somebody help me with this idea?
The concern is genuine. Without knowledge, how do we come to be who it is we are “meant” to be? And is there not a point, developmentally, where it can be “too late”?
NO. I am sure it can’t be “too late.”
What I really want is a way to picture life from here for, say, the oldest one (15, was it?). Does she begin with fractions and decimals
Maybe. Probably not.
and work her way up to algebra, then calculus?
Calculus is almost certain to follow, rather than precede, algebra, yes.
Does she start at the local community college
in remedial classes?
No, in normal classes.
What does such a life LOOK like?
Well OK, if you really insist on knowing, I’ll tell you. I know all the details except her name, so let’s call her Anna.
Sometime this year, Anna’s previous interest in Lego, treehouse- building, the internet and computer games will all come together and draw her attention to a major TV documentary about how stunts are arranged in movies. She will start building such stunts in the garden, each more ingenious than the last, using all sorts of props and filming them on a video camera. One day, a physics teacher will walk past and see her doing this. Calling to her to give her advice about how to balance a particular arrangement of planks, he will inadvertently cause her to fall fifteen feet onto the grass, fortunately causing only a broken toe.
Anna will have to wait three hours for treatment in the emergency room, which could have been excruciating (because the slightly addled person waiting on her left suffering from chronic whiteboard-marker poisoning will be a mathematics teacher eager to plug the gaps in her home education), but in the event, it will pass quickly because she will get into conversation with the fascinating person waiting on her right, a huge lady called Agnes. Turns out Agnes’ ex-husband used to do stunts in Hollywood and she used to help him before she found out about some of the other stunts he pulled–but that’s another story. Anyway, now she owns three successful cafes in town and has just bought two more and wants to go up-market. She’s been talking to an advertising agency about making a series of ads for the local TV. She hasn’t liked any of their ideas so far, but soon finds that Anna is bubbling with great ideas for how to advertise high-class restaurants using movie-like stunts. Agnes will be surprised and delighted to hear that Anna actually has videos of several stunts she has arranged single-handed (with a little help from her little brothers) and will tell her her to drop by at her office next say.
Next day Anna will hobble along to Agnes’ office above one of her restaurants, currently being re-fitted with the new up-market decor. Agnes will love the videos, and will commission Anna to design five stunts for the new series of ads, and execute them for the TV people. Anna will earn three thousand dollars for this, but think no more about it until six months later when the advertising agency will offer her a similar job, albeit for only $500. She will accept, because even though it’s a lot of work and the materials alone will cost almost that much, she will enjoy it enormously. The following week, someone will let the agency down and they will phone around in desperation for anyone they know who can do a firework display. Anna will never have done such a thing, and technically it’s illegal, but she will agree to step in to help them out. Not only will the display be a great success, but Anna will meet and fall instantly in love with … the computerised timing device that the agency gave her to time the fireworks. She will ask if she can borrow it, and for the next year it will spend far more time in her garage than at the agency, for she will think of more and more ways to use it to do wonderful stunts, and also special effects. She will also start editing her movies on the agency’s professional computerised editing system.
One day in the cutting room, she will meet a pro who is engaged in a science documentary. He will be a mathematics graduate–who has forgotten all the maths he ever knew and will now be spending all his time filming animals mating. So they won’t talk about maths but she will show him how to hide some of the more repulsive aspects of his footage using a difficult timed transition on the editing machine, and in return he will introduce her to his boss, whose next documentary will be about the NASA robots that will one day explore Mars. Anna will be hired as a technical assistant on that documentary, and will dazzle everyone with the exciting stunts she will think of to demonstrate how these robots will behave on Mars. The boss will offer her a permanent job on the team, but she will refuse, because while at NASA, she will also have helped one of the astronomers out with making a promotional movie designed to persuade the government to fund more infra-red satellites. The problem will have been how to display, in an eye-catching and persuasive way, the complex data that demonstrate why such satellites are better than ground-based telescopes. Anna will succeed at this so well that she will have persuaded herself too. She will spend the next two years working for one of NASA’a subcontractors, first in the publicity department, then designing user-interfaces for satellite ground stations, and then even some aspects of the satellites themselves.
All this will involve a lot of interactions between herself and astrophysics graduate students, but slowly the attraction of satellites will wear off, and she will realise that her real love is theoretical astronomy. She’ll read a book about calculus, do a six- month adult-education course in physics to fill in the gaps in what she’s picked up, and then apply to take an undergraduate degree in astronomy, complete it a year ahead of time and then be accepted for a PhD in quasar structure. At that point she will officially become a SCIENTIST.
Meanwhile she will have had two children with the NASA astronomer (who will have left astronomy to become an internet millionaire and failed miserably, but will by that time be blissfully happy again as a home maker), and she will worry that the children won’t achieve anything in life unless they have a good grounding in the basics, especially mathematics, but for some unaccountable reason the ungrateful little wretches will be digging their heels in and refusing to listen.
David Deutsch, 2000, ‘But if we don’t make her do maths…’ https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/but-if-we-dont-make-her-do-maths/