Fusun Akman, Coastal Carolina University|
An advanced society rediscovers the joys
of multipying numbers BY HAND, a forgotten art. It's a
author probably did not realize how quickly the premise of this story
(people so dependent upon the electonic computing devices for
computation that they have no idea that they can do it themselves)
would become a reality. I refer, of course, to the students in my
This story appears in the book Robot
Dreams as well as in the collection Mathematical
Magpie and in "Mathenauts"! It is clearly one of the
"classics" of mathematical fiction.
This story is essentially a "reversal sketch", taking our current ideas about mathematics and computing (and other things besides) and turning them completely back-to-front. There is a serious point being made about people's reliance on calculators, but it's also very funny. (Perhaps a little *too* funny - the impact of the ending is somewhat diminished by the humourous tone.) Asimov wrote a story called "The Fun They Had" which is about the awe experienced by future children when they discover an amazing ancient artefact - a book. That story had so much appeal to educators that it has been anthologised to death (especially in schools books). This is almost a companion-piece to that story, but thankfully hasn't been so over-used and will be more appreciated by anyone who feels that the importance of mathematics is often overlooked - or anyone who enjoys shaggy dog stories.
I read this story 30 years back and yet it is fresh in my mind. Whenever I see people using calculators to multiply a number by 10, I remember this story.
I am reminded of this little gem of a story (which I first read in junior high school in the mid 60's) each and every time I watch my kids, some of them in college and all reasonably intelligent, try to handle even the simplest arithmetic task by whipping out their laptops, adjusting their verniers, and doing God knows what else. Meanwhile, I just use the Mark I human brain, and possibly pencil and paper. Guess who always wins that race?
In my professional career (which in engineering and scientific programming), I've witnessed some truly bad suggestions and ideas, always based on reams of computer output. Sometimes they make no sense whatever, but a lot of folks, even experienced professionals (I more or less expect errant nonsense from college newbies), are so in awe of the sacred computer, they apparently have lost all sense of judgement. It's no surprise to find that either the input data turns out to be incorrect, or that the underlying "analysis" program was seriously flawed. Possibly my favorite was someone who insisted that the proper and absolutely correct value of "pi" was "22/7" -- you'll notice that I did *not* write "22./7.". Once the holy number pops out on the screen, it's hard to convince people to use their brains.
How true this litle story's forcast of our future has become. Our society is math ignorant!
Wow! That was a great story. I might have my students read this after they have completed their math SOL tests. Or maybe I will have to read it to them.
I went into a fastfood restaurant the other day and bought my favorite meal of a chicken sandwich and iced tea. I pulled a five dollar bill out of my pocket while the cashier pressed the enter button to open the drawer. The register displayed the exact amount in change to be returned to me - that is - if it were not my intent to also use the coins in my pocket. The cashier exclaimed, "uh oh!" Realizing that she relied solely on the machine, I proceeded to teach her how to make change and recalled this delightful short story that I read in 1966 as a 7th grader. Asimov's story was quite prophetic, wasn't it?