One of my favorite female characters in all of science fiction is Aelliana Caylon from the Liaden series. She’s a brilliant mathematician who can do complex hyperspace equations in her head faster than a navigational computer. She also wins a spaceship at cards, because math. She has her flaws–she’s anxious and unconfident, like me sometimes–but her strengths far, far outweigh those flaws. There are days I totally want to be Aelliana.

Sadly, I am not a mathematical genius. No, really; I’ve been tested. I was in the advanced math classes all through high school because that’s how it happened. My senior year, they took us all into a huge auditorium and gave us a ridiculously hard math test. Ridiculously hard, on purpose. They were screening for math geniuses, you see. Rumors were the NSA was recruiting.

The key to this particular test is to know what you didn’t know. If you could solve the problem, you should solve it and you’d get points. If you didn’t know how to solve the problem, well, you’d leave it blank. Supposedly. For every incorrect answer you filled it, you’d get points deducted.

Several of my classmates got scores of 40 or 60 on this ridiculously hard test. They filled in the blanks for the ones they knew, turned in the mostly blank answer sheet, and went on with their lives. One guy got a score of over 200. He was one of the math geniuses they were looking for–though by his affectation of a poor suburban rap accent, you’d never know. Rumors were that he was later offered a job with the NSA.

But me? I got a negative 120. That’s right, negative. I couldn’t stand to let the questions go. I’d had through Calculus 2, and some of the ideas made an elegant sort of pattern to them. It was work. I had to stretch my mind, a lot. But I could almost–almost–see the pattern emerging. And then it would slip out of reach; I’d get dashed back to the earth, frustrated. The pattern wouldn’t gel. I could see it was there, but not find it. So I covered the entire booklet with scribbled notes. I worked on the answers from angle after angle. I scribbled in that damn book all the way up to the three hour mark. I would rule out an answer or two… but then utterly fail. So I’d start over.

They called the time, and I bubbled in my best guesses, and walked away. Then, a month later, I got my answers back. The absolute lowest score in the entire school. By 100 points. Best guesses don’t do it, not when it comes to the real math.

The real math, the navigational tables, the quantum theory, the theorems, the cutting edge math, the real stuff–that I can’t do. I can learn someone else’s math. I sweated through Calc 3. I cried my way through learning Taylor Polynomials, thanks. And got an A. Because reasons. I can learn whatever the hell I need to, if I’m willing to put in the work. But when it comes to the real stuff, the real math, I’m a woman wandering in a forest with a sheet over my eyes. I can see the vague outlines of the world, but no detail. And I keep running into things.

This makes me deeply sad.

Because, you see, I am not a mathematical genius, and I understand enough to know the difference.

And now comes the part where we commiserate. What were YOUR academic strengths? Did any of you struggle with the patterns like I did?

Alexander R. says

Heh. At least it took you until senior year in high school. My hopes and dreams were dashed in 5th grade math club (for extra special math geeks) in the USSR. I remember answering questions, knowing the answer was wrong, but just not being able to figure out the right one. On the plus side, learned enough math to do other people’s taxes. More importantly, learned to let the computer do the actual math.

Hmmmm…. I wonder if you have to file taxes in every state you fly over, if you’re an astronaut …. like professional athletes have to do. Yeah, I do know the answer. It’s 42.

Alex says

LOL… love the Adams reference! 🙂 Yes, letting computers do the math is the best.

Monica Rodriguez says

I love math. Especially algebra, an admission that usually earns me funny looks at best. I even taught algebra for a time. Algebra to me was like solving a puzzle. The more complex the problem, the more I enjoyed it.

Calculus and differential equations, not so much. I did take AP Calc in high school, and calculus in college, along with the physics and chemistry I’d taken in high school. My mistake was thinking it would be just as easy in college as it had been for me in high school. I loved these classes but… My first semester GPA was …unspeakable. In fact the next semester I nearly doubled it (and there was still room for improvement!). But by then, I started looking around for another major. An engineer I would not be, apparently.

Alex says

Yes. I totally get that sad moment. Algebra is awesome though!

Victoria says

Math wasn’t easy. Everything else was. When I got to the SAT, I found out why. I’m only normal in math. 500 math, 799 verbal. Wish I knew which one I missed 🙂

Victoria says

PS- I LOVE the Liaden books. Thanks for the plug for Sharon Lee and Steve Miller!