Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Another Education Story

[posted by Callimachus]

A few days ago I told a story about my education. Here's another one. In a sense, it's the flip-side.

Ever since fifth grade, I've known I was terrible at math. Until that time, I wanted to be an astronomer. But when I realized I was third-rate as a math student, I gave up that dream and settled for being a star-gazing writer.

I can't blame my education for this. I seem to be as constitutionally incapable as a gorilla of thinking in geometric and physics terms. I fall for Zeno's paradoxes every time.

After I graduated from high school, I took a year off from schooling before college. But it wasn't a year off from education: I planned to read furiously and teach myself things, in addition to working menial jobs and traveling a bit and saving some money.

Mostly, I read books. But I also gave myself a math project.

I almost hesitate to write this, because it's probably so simple half the readers out there can visualize the answer by the time I finish phrasing the problem. But I was a math retard.

Here's the challenge: Astronomers on earth have measured the distance to nearby stars fairly accurately using parallax. And we know the position of those stars on the dome of the sky by coordinates that roughly correspond to lattitude and longitude. So I know that, say, Alpha Centauri is 4.6 light years away from earth at position X, and Sirius is 8 light years away at position Y: What is the formula to find out how far Alpha Centauri is from Sirius?

It's the kind of obscure problem that only might interest a pedantic science fiction writer. But it was a legitimate question nonetheless; even if the specific answer was nowhere to be found in published literature circa 1978.

In my spare time, I'd try to discover the method of answering that, based on the simple amount of trigonometry that had been hammered into my head in 11th grade too hard to have fallen out. I'll never forget the moment I finally got it: Sitting in a train station in Klagenfurt, Austria. Suddenly I could find the distance between any two stars in the heavens -- a useless fact that, perhaps, no one else on earth had bothered to know.

And I'll never forget the feeling that accompanied the discovery: I had solved a problem entirely on my own. It was so unlike school.