x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Numbers can be fun – if you can figure them out

I am constantly surprised at the weird and wonderful things teenagers can do when they put their minds to it.

Afew friends were over recently and we were  about to go out for dinner. There was the usual flurry of activity – the multicoloured clouds of eyeshadow floating about the room, spilt nail polish and the rush for ice after someone got scalded by the curler. In the middle of the tumult, Shanzeh was perched rather quietly on the bed, thoughtfully flicking through Stephen Hawking’s God Created the Integers. “Oh, I just saw it on your bookshelf, looked interesting,” she shrugged in explanation.

There’s sometimes peer pressure on teenagers to consider academic subjects, especially stereotypically dull ones such as maths, as nothing more than one of the many painful tragedies of life. Yet there are many young people who appreciate their mystery and potential for exploration.

God Created the Integers was a present from my grandmother, who no doubt harboured hopes that I would devour all 1,160 pages of small print with gusto. It sits on a prominent place on the bookshelf so everyone can labour under the convenient delusion that I read smart books, although to be fair I have spared the blurb a glance.

I finished doing maths last year and never thought I would say the words, but I do miss 15 years of making mildly interesting discoveries, like the number of petals of flowers are usually Fibonacci numbers. This is the sequence where each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers. I suffered extensively over permutations and projectile motion, but nostalgia only deals with the rosier bits – the bits of a sum I could actually do.

Maths crops up not only in every profession but also in teenagers’ chief interests. Shopping for clothes. Watching our calories and weight. Shopping for make-up and accessories. Shopping for shoes – or anything, in fact – although the bills racked up would suggest we haven’t the faintest idea about using maths to stick to our budgets.

There’s a reason I’ve suddenly awoken to the epiphany that maths is actually quite interesting. A few days ago, I attended the inauguration of a maths skills-sharpening centre in Veracity Talent Development in Bur Dubai, “designed to boost brain power and stimulate young minds using abacus and mental arithmetic”. As a demonstration, a teenager a couple of years younger than me was asked to add together a string of numbers – five six-digit monsters. He took less than a second to reply: “Three million four hundred twenty-six thousand nine hundred and one” – or words to that effect. Neat party trick, that.

I was too busy doing an impression of a gaping halibut to even check the answer on my phone’s calculator. Besides, I’d forgotten what the numbers were before I’d even finished hearing them. There’s a magic to number crunching, as abominably self-satisfied as that sounds.

I am constantly surprised at the weird and wonderful things teenagers can do when they put their minds to it and the young man had just proved that maths could be used to show off a pretty spectacular ability. Bet he’d come in handy to have tag along on a shopping spree.


The writer is a 17-year-old student in Dubai

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