Are people “good” or “bad” at math?


Over at Quartz, writer Allison Schrager says no. I originally spotted her article over at Newser, which summarized it this way: “Think You’re ‘Bad at Math’? You’re Just Being Lazy.

While there are some good points in the article, I feel as though her conclusion is flawed.

Yes, math is difficult – especially when you get up into the higher levels. To learn it requires intellectual rigor, patience, discipline, and hours and hours of repetition. I remember this passage from the first science fiction book I ever read as a child, Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel:

“Anybody who thinks that studying Latin by himself is a snap should try it.

I got discouraged and nearly quit-then I got mad and leaned into it. After a while I found that Latin was making Spanish easier and vice versa. When Miss Hernandez, my Spanish teacher, found out I was studying Latin, she began tutoring me. I not only worked my way through Virgil, I learned to speak Spanish like a Mexicano.

Algebra and plane geometry were all the math our school offered; I went ahead on my own with advanced algebra and solid geometry and trigonometry and might have stopped so far as College Boards were concerned-but math is worse than peanuts. Analytical geometry seems pure Greek until you see what they’re driving at-then, if you know algebra, it bursts on you and you race through the rest of the book. Glorious!”

I loved that story when I read it at age 10, and I still love it today, but I’m bitterly disappointed that I never had that breakthrough that the story’s protagonist experienced. I did fair to middling through high school in algebra, geometry, trigonometry and analytical geometry, but I was always doing it like a cook follows a recipe – it never burst on me, and I never saw what they’re driving at. So when I hit college with dreams of being a doctor, and discovered that in order to pursue a chemistry major I would have to take all the concomitant calculus courses, that was all she wrote. It was worse than pure Greek, because that’s a subject I did well in.

Mastering a foreign language is no piece of cake either, and yet for some reason I can master enough of a foreign language to become reasonably fluent in 3 months, whereas learning even the rudiments of calculus has eluded me for over 40 years. The disappointment stems from the fact that I love the world of science, and mathematics is the key that unlocks the door to understanding – a door through which I will only ever be able to peer through a keyhole to where the big boys and girls are playing.

This is music to my ears…

“Per me si va ne la città dolente,
Per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
Per me si va tra la perduta gente.
Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore:
Fecemi la divina podestate,
La somma sapienza e ‘l primo amore.
Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
Se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate”.
(from Dante’s Divina Commedia)

whereas this makes my mind shut down completely:


Kepler’s equation for calculating orbits


And all we’re talking about here is limits, let alone the really weird things. To a scientist, this is really simple stuff.

My own experience has demonstrated to me that each person born has gifts and abilities unique to them. As no two snowflakes are a like, as no two stars have identical magnitudes or compositions, so no two people have the same talents. For me, math is terribly difficult, and language is uncannily easy.


As a result, the formula above is the only bit of calculus that I have ever been able to memorize – and I’ll never forget it.  Don’t get me wrong – I can’t evaluate it, even though I’m told by smarter friends that both sides equal ⅓; no, I remember it because it’s a limerick. [1]

Integral zee squared dee zee,
From one to the cube root of three,
Times the cosine
Of three pi over nine,
Equals log of the cube root of e.


Here is a drawing done by my daughter, who has never had an art lesson in her life. This is a gift that springs from within her.

Where I agree with Ms. Schrager is that despite the difficulty, if I worked at it long enough and hard enough, I could master it. But somewhere else there is a brilliant mathematician who trembles in terror at the thought of trying to learn Italian, because he or she knows that it would almost take more effort than it is worth.

In conclusion, I would retitle Ms. Schrager’s article to read: “Yeah, math is hard – but it’s worth the effort.”

The Old Wolf has spoken.

[1] I have hundreds of limericks rattling around in my skull. Unfortunatly,

A limerick packs rhymes anatomical
Into verses quite economical
But the good ones I’ve seen
So seldom are clean
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.


One response to “Are people “good” or “bad” at math?

  1. “But it’s only been 40 years!”
    — Rincewind the Wizard, on the subject of not having learned a single magic spell during his time at Unseen University (movie version)

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