Cumberland Times-News

Bob Doyle - Astronomy

August 4, 2012

Here’s a math book that’s truly useful

One of the key foundations on which our civilization is built is mathematics. Math allows us to design and construct buildings and vehicles that we work in and transport freight and ourselves.

Mathematics, using a great amount of data allows prediction of weather (short term) and analysis of climate (long term). Math makes possible local, national and international businesses.

Our television, media, cell phones, computers and networks all rely on physical laws which are expressed mathematically.

In short, without mathematics, there would little be science and we all would be living as people did a thousand or more years ago.

There would be no electricity; we would only have mechanical energy provided by humans, horses, oxen, sails and wind mills.

One of saddest aspects of our American society is the widespread antipathy towards math. It’s so common to hear the phrase, “I’m not good at math.”

This doesn’t refer to calculus or differential equations. This outlook refers to basic math, such as simple problem solving as deciding what box of cereal is the best buy, or estimating how many gallons of gas it will take to make a round trip to the Pittsburgh, Baltimore or Washington airports.

  So many parents say this phrase to their children; this give a child a excuse not to learn or enjoy math. (A youngster will think, if my parents can’t do math (for they’re more experienced), how can I possibly do math?)

There is a wonderful book to help alleviate math difficulties and show in clear detail a number of math concepts and procedures. This 2010 paperback is “Help Your Kids With Math: A Unique Step by Step Visual Guide,” by DK Publishing with 4 authors (Vorderman, Lewis, Jeffrey and Weeks), with ISBN 978-0-7566-4979-1.

This book is printed in the U.S.A. and costs about $20. Look at any DK book, and you’ll realize they employ talented graphic designers to make ideas, events and people very appealing. DK has many other books in history and science.

The table of contents includes: Numbers (addition, subtraction, multiplication, powers, roots, decimals, fractions, round off, using a calculator, personal and business finances), then geometry (triangles, circles, volumes, surface area), trigonometry, algebra, statistics and probability, a reference section, glossary and index.

Although the book is designed for students from age 9 to 16, it allows adults who have taken their last math course decades ago (and forgotten nearly everything) to relearn some school math and even learn about math topics they never took in school.

The illustrations are very attractive, featuring multicolored stylized human figures, arrangements of blocks, pie charts, trees, candy, trucks, shirts, runners, bikes and airplanes — focusing on objects that we are quite familiar with.

 I do a lot of problem solving in my college physical science classes so my students can better understand the basic physical laws.

There is an absence of math in most other college classes (my students tell me this) so I am faced with having to teach or review basic math procedures as are illustrated in the above book.

Some students have good basic math skills and they enjoy finding answers to problems. But for the math fearing students, I do an example of each problem on the blackboard that they must solve in class. (Every student has different numbers to work with, eliminating copying.)

If a student can’t follow my worked out example (on display), I ask them to talk to their neighbor in class. If the neighbor can’t help a student, then I am glad to stay after class to work with individuals.

Naturally, their class work is graded (counts for a significant part of their final grade). In this way I can be sure students are using appropriate steps and their answers are close to what they should be.

Research tells us that the more mathematics courses a student takes in high school, the more likely they will graduate from college.

Taking more than the minimum number of math courses in college is also helpful. College students majoring in a STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering or Math) have better prospects of getting a job after graduation, compared to other fields.

Math is like many subjects: “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Taking a calculator to the grocery store allows you to keep track of current sales amount and help you decide whether to buy an extra box of something.

I suspect that many people who don’t feel comfortable with numbers are more likely to get into financial difficulties.

This includes the tragic number of people whose houses have been foreclosed and also the financial heavy weights who don’t grasp risk assessment, allowing their firms to lose many millions of dollars.

SKY SIGHTS THIS WEEK: Tonight and the next few evenings, the moon will be prominent in the late evening hours. In the early evening as it gets dark (9:30 p.m.), two planets can be seen low in the southwest.

Two bright points appear together; the higher point is Saturn (shining steadily) while the lower point is the star Spica.

To the right of Saturn and Spica is the planet Mars, not as bright as Saturn or Spica. Mars is slowly creeping to the left each night and will pass in between Saturn and Spica in mid August.

Next Sunday morning is the time to view the Perseid meteor shower. A meteor shower occurs when the Earth plows through a comet’s orbit, littered with comet grit.

When the comet grit (typically the size of a pea) impacts the Earth’s atmosphere at thousands of miles per hour, it is incinerated by air friction about 50 miles altitude. This is what causes a meteor or “shooting star.”

These meteors are called Perseids for they can be traced back to the star group Perseus in the northern sky.

You can see more meteors in the early morning hours as the meteors are then striking the Earth nearly head on and appear brighter. Possibly as many 50 meteors per hour may be seen. Lie flat on a tarp so you can see much of the sky.

Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at rdoyle@frostburg.edu . He is available as a speaker on his column topics.

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Bob Doyle - Astronomy
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