As a young boy I thought Albert Einstein was the world’s greatest mathematician and my Dad was a close second. Years later I somehow managed at first to also maintain a fairly high math rating with my kids. I had no trouble counting the red and blue balloons and clowns in their kindergarten workbooks and, with a little effort, I could later figure out how many cows Farmer Brown had to milk to get 100 gallons.
Then one fateful day years ago I saw my son Steven scratching his head over his high school text book while doing homework and I offered to help, secretly hoping balloons, clowns or cows would be involved.
“Well Dad,” he said, “do you know anything about the binary system?”
“I’m sure it will come back to me, ” I said. “I was pretty good in biology.”
No father should have to experience the look of disbelief, exasperation and pity that I got from my son at that moment.
“Dad,” he said, struggling to remain calm, “the binary system is the base-two system of numbers that’s used in computers.” I didn’t have a computer back then. I was using an adding machine at work and saving for a calculator which, miraculously, could add, divide and multiply.
Steven tried hard over the next couple of weeks to teach me computer technology, but no one, not even my own son, will convince me that 5 is equal to 101. This I cannot fathom (which is equal to 6 feet or 2 yards or a whole bunch of millimeters).
Hoping to get more understandable explanations of the current math I checked with friends, fathers of my own age, but most said they were as befuddled as me. “What in the world is Boolean* algebra ?” Andy asked me. “I had enough trouble learning American algebra in high school and now these poor kids have to deal with the way they’re teaching it in a country called Boolea. Where the heck is Boolea anyway?”
I was having difficulty with math and didn’t want to admit I wasn’t that good in geography either, the way they kept changing the names of countries. I took a wild guess and said, “Boolea is in central Africa, Andy. I think they just had a revolution. I forget the details, but it might have been about algebra. You know how upset people can get about algebra.”
*I learned later, a troublemaking mathematician named George Boole invented this new algebra as if the old one wasn’t tough enough and they named it after him so we’d know who to blame.