Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Good Old (Maths) Days

We can all get nostalgic about the good old days but when it comes to certain things we did at school, what of the ones we did not enjoy? Are we still as nostalgic about the things we were only too glad to leave behind when the time came to leave? For example, a lot of people are only too willing to relate how they never liked - or even hated - mathematics and how they could never do it. (Perhaps the state of their personal finances now attests to this?)

I liked maths. In fact, I liked virtually everything. It was a shame that I ever had to leave school. (By going into academia perhaps I did not, in a sense, leave school at all. When I went for an interview at the university from which I got my first degree, as I walked onto campus I passed a mother and her young child. I heard the child ask about all those buildings. 'It's like a big school', the mother replied. True - if only it were 'truer'.) The things at school that I did not like so much or did not do so well at, I have come to like since as I have gone about studying them for myself.

In the context of good old maths, whatever happened to books of mathematical tables? They are still available but nowadays there is no need to work out answers using logarithms. Just as electronic calculators have meant that slide rules have largely disappeared (although I still have two which I salvaged from a garage sale), so too the use of mathematical tables has, it seems, declined considerably. This is a pity since working on the nuts and bolts of a problem and not merely reading off some numbers from a handheld device I believe to have had a subliminal teaching effect on me.

So here is a picture of some log tables. Can you remember how to multiply, say, 50284 by 324.65 and get back to the answer using just these tables. It can be done without resorting to antilog tables.