Use it or Lose it

I had to do math this morning for work. Nothing major, just a calculation of standard deviations and RSD for something. Population set of only six. Only… I wound up having to do it by hand and was painfully reminded that if you don’t use math, you lose it. I didn’t have a decent calculator (although I did have one that would handle square roots, thank goodness, I’m not sure I could have managed that off the top of my head, despite having been taught methods of approximation that actually make that decently possible). I did do up through calculus in college, and this is simple stats. No problem?

Ugh. I have to wonder if there’s a way to do math daily that wouldn’t cut into my time for everything else, because like the Tin Man, my skills get so rusty every time I wander away from math I freeze up. I did this when I went back to college, twenty years after romping through all the math my highschool had the capacity to offer me (not calculus because they didn’t have anyone who could teach that). In order to even take a basic level college algebra class, I had to sign a waiver since I repeatedly failed the placement test by a slim margin. I signed the waiver – I was not going to waste time and money on a no-credit remedial math class. I got an A in that course, by dint of cramming and working those rusty mental connections. But I didn’t take math every semester in college, so I struggled later with precalc and calc as I’d had semester or year-long gaps. It seemed like my ability to retain math skills had faded as I’d aged.

If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. Muscles, as well as memory, atrophy with misuse and neglect. Any skill left too long is going to be difficult to polish up again. You do have the slight leg up that there are connections there, you don’t have to rediscover them from scratch. If we use the tin man metaphor, it’s like remembering that you have arms and legs, but forgetting that there are fingers and toes for even greater dexterity. And for a mathematician, tentacles and pincers for unbelievable flexibility in grasping concepts. F’taghn chuthulu, math…

In the meantime, I think I’ll see if I have a way to keep the math joints oiled up and ready for action. I’d hate to be stuck in the forest with no way out if I can’t calculate a Student’s T-test or something like that. A decent calculator, at the very least!

9 thoughts on “Use it or Lose it

  1. The neat thing is, it doesn’t go away completely. If you don’t use it, the ability does go out of immediate recall. However, it just takes a little recognition, ie re-learning, to bring the skill back. I say this as a STEM tutor with over 20 years experience helping students do exactly that – re-learn math skills, often after gaps of 15 years or more.

    1. And the snow ought to have gone away now! it’s a feature WP offers, and I can’t remember if I turned it on last year and forgot to turn it off, or if it turns itself on, but I’d imagine it is disconcerting.

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