I never particularly liked maths at school but there was a point which I still clearly remember when I began positively to hate it.
It was a dark, rainy Tuesday afternoon in room 7 in the east wing of the school; a dismal, barely illuminated classroom. I was sweating over a maths problem set out in a dusty, yellowed old maths text book which seriously expected me to use a quadratic equation to work out how quickly a blob of ink from my fountain pen – actually going from the age of the book it may have said quill pen – would spread over my blotting paper…
Now, it may be that they do use quadratic equations to work out the blottiness of blotting paper and that the infinitesimally small fraction of the population which ends up working in the development department of a blotting paper factory would find this essential, but on that far off dingy day I could only think, “who the fucking hell cares?”
This attitude stood me in good stead up to the o-levels where I somehow scraped a 5, which in England is a respectable pass for a no-hoper.
And just when you think you will never have to do anything like that again…your kids get to senior school.
William, my youngest, admitted to having a problem with his maths last night...late last night…too late to do anything about it last night. So we decided we would have to get up early this morning and go through it after breakfast. I had a look in his school book…it was set theory which for me at school came just after algebra on my list of detestables. They were looking at the set of natural numbers and how that is an element of the set of natural numbers plus zero and how the set of natural numbers plus zero is therefore NOT an element of the set of natural numbers…
Well, there you go…
And so it came to pass that I was lying in bed this morning trying to think of some way to make it all a little more…worldly.
And I had this great idea: McDonalds!! There is a set of McDonalds products – M. One element of this set could be, for example, hamburgers – H – of which there would be elements such as cheeseburger – cH – and, say, baconburger – bH.
Then there is a set of milk shakes – S – and this could have elements like strawberry milkshake – sS – and banana milkshake – bS. So while sH is an element of M it is not an element of S and bS is an element of S but not of H.
So I explained it this way to William: M is the set of McDonalds’ products and H is blah blah and S blah blah etc etc.
A mathematical McDonaldical tour de force.
And at the end what did William say?
“But I don’t like McDonalds!”