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
calculus class. ~ )
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.
(Note that Someday, another short story by Asimov, has a similar theme but focuses more on written language than on math. In it, two children who live in a future society where humans use voice controlled computers and no longer know how to read or write rediscover the use of "squiggles" to communicate. Among the things they discuss are symbols to represent numbers, multiplication tables, and the use of slide rules for computation.)
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?
I read this story in 10th-grade literature, and it was seriously a life-changing experience. The impact it made on me was such that I vowed I would never, EVER lose the ability to calculate math in my head, and that's when it started. Of course math was always one of my favourite subjects, and I was good at it. At the age of 12, I was a cashier in a little mom and pop grocery store. That was back in the days when cash registers didn't tell you how much change to give, but just the total amount due. The customer would give me cash, and I would count the change back in my head. I don't even think young people can understand the notion. Since reading the story, I try doing every calculation I need without the aid of a calculator or even pen and paper. I taught myself tricks to be able to add and multiply numbers by using the rounding to the nearest 5 method, and I am often quicker than if I had used more "conventional" methods. I must thank Dr. Asimov, and my teacher Mr. Whatshisname, for helping me become better at and more appreciative of math: one of the only true constants in life.