In grade school we learned the 3 R’s: reading, writing, arithmetic. Or in keeping with the alliteration – ‘rithmetic. I always had trouble with arithmetic both as a class and as an “r”. My OCD rejected that phrase because it didn’t make sense to me. Plus, unfortunately I’m not fluent in math. Writing at least starts with the right sound.

I like to listen to podcasts and particularly NPR. Recently I listened to “This American Life” and a discussion of Fermi’s Paradox. I am familiar with Fermi. Fermi and his scientist friends were at lunch at Los Alamos randomly talking about aliens. If there is intelligent life out there, where are they? Are we alone? Are there aliens?

The producer David Kestenbaum explored the possibilities. He visited his old physics professor and they applied the Drake equation to determine the probability. Being math illiterate, I had never heard of this. The Drake equation is basically trying to calculate how many other civilizations are out there. They multiplied things like how often stars form in a galaxy, what fraction of those have planets around them, odds of life evolving, odds of intelligent life developing, and how long civilizations last.

I was sorry that I had not paid more attention in math class. For a show about math, I could not stop listening. In the end the paradox was not answered. Isn’t that what makes it a paradox? There is, however, a probability that maybe there are aliens. Maybe they live among us.

Another podcast from NPR that I listen to is “Ask Me Another”. One of the games is based on the wisdom of the crowd. For example, a crowd guesses the number of jelly beans in a jar. When averaged together their answer is surprisingly accurate.

The audience is then asked a series of questions. One question was how many quills on a porcupine. A contestant then has the choice of choosing the audience’s answer or the resident expert Johnathon Colton. Colton applied pi and something about radius to determine his answer. The contestant decides who is closer: Colton or the audience. Colton walked us through his thought process. I had no idea what he was saying, but it was still fascinating.

I sometimes use math when running. I try to determine splits or how much faster my last mile needs to be to reach a certain pace. One stretch of road I run is 1.7 miles. If I run that twice how many miles is that? Working that out in my head takes my mind off the road for a few minutes.

My students ask occasionally what grade they need to make a test to raise their average. I laugh and laugh because they asked me a math question. Thank goodness for calculators.

Still, I was humbled and awestruck.

So how many quills does a porcupine have?

Answer: 30,000.

That is a whole lot of spikes!!

Have you thought of using one of the online platforms like Khan Academy to help you learn (re-learn) maths? It sounds like you have an interest now, so it might be easier to pick things up…

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