How I Overcame My Math Blocks

What do you do when you can’t do the thing you want most in life? And I don’t mean “can’t” in a I-have-other-things-to-do kind of way. I mean can’t do it even though it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do kind of way.

Published by Tony Darnell on 31st Dec, 2006

What do you do when you can’t do the thing you want most in life? And I don’t mean “can’t” in a I-have-other-things-to-do kind of way. I mean can’t do it even though it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do kind of way. There’s nothing more tragic in this world than wanting to do something so badly, to live your passion, yet not have the skills, and no hope of ever getting the skillset needed to do that thing.

As a kid I did very poorly in school. I graduated high school with a 2.4 grade point average, due largely to my lack of ability to do any math problem whatsoever. From multiplication tables in elementary school, to algebra in high school, I couldn’t do it. Any of it.

Well, of course a 2.4 grade point average in high school isn’t going to get anyone into anything but Buford & Clem’s Community College – where the only requirement to get in is a pen. As a result, I became very depressed. I was depressed because more than anything in the world I wanted (and the only real goal I ever had in my entire life), was to become a scientist, particularly an astronomer. But astronomers need to be able to do math, and I found out much later that I suffered from some learning disabilities which prevented me from getting where I wanted to be.

It’s a pretty bad day when you discover that you just can’t do what you’ve always dreamed of your whole life. Many of us have doubts that we can learn the skills we need in order to accomplish our goals. For me, it looked like a hard reality ahead.

After high school, I asked Richard, a close family friend and a PhD chemical engineer, to please tutor me in algebra so that I could try to pass some college level math courses. Richard is a man who has won awards for being the best teaching professor at his university, and he spent months with me trying to teach me how to work out simple algebra problems. Nothing he did worked. He eventually told me that my brain simply wasn’t wired to do math. I would probably never be able to do it, he admitted sadly.

Great. SuperPeachyFunTime. Now what?

This Apple ][+
This Apple ][+ was a godsend in 1980

Although I didn’t know it at the time, the solution to my problem arrived in 1980. My future mother-in-law was (and still is) an author and an expert in gifted education. She was writing a book, and her publishing company purchased an Apple ][+ computer for her to write it on.

I’ll never forget that computer, it had a whopping 64K of RAM, two floppy drives, and a monochome screen with 80 columns. It was a $5,000.00 computer and my mother-in-law had no idea how to work it. It just arrived in a bunch of boxes.

She asked if I could set it up. I looked at all the boxes, got out the manuals and started reading. This was my first exposure to computers and I didn’t know a thing about them. It was at this point that I discovered a significant thing about myself: when I’m interested in something, I devour every piece of information I can find on the subject with a laser beam focus. Nothing else exists for me when I’m learning something I care about.

I spent two days straight setting up her computer and installing software. I didn’t eat or sleep, this computer stuff was awesome. I couldn’t think about anything else except computers.

For some reason, the computer came with USCD Pascal, a programming language. I found out later that this was pretty expensive, I guess the publisher anticipated that my mother-in-law would be writing some code while she worked on her book.

Anyway, I dove into that with both feet. I read the manuals that came with it, those spiral-bound books that Apple shipped with all of their software at the time, and started doing the examples. There was a tutorial book that had lots of lessons and examples in it so I went through that entire book.

Once I finished the lessons in the tutorial, I started writing my own simple programs. The great thing about Pascal (one of the few) is that it is a highly structured language, which means the programs are broken up into blocks of code, called “procedures,” with each procedure doing a specific task, and you can nest these blocks if you want.

This procedure approach has the key advantage of forcing the programmer to break down a task into discreet elements and code each one separately. Little did I know that this exercise would be a crucial component to overcoming my math blocks.

As I began to write more sophisticated programs, there were times when I needed the computer to do some calculations. Things like computing the radius of a circle for my drawing program, or the slope of a line for some graphs I was making, or the distance in pixels from one sprite to another for a game I was writing.

I had to teach the computer, in a very clear and methodical manner, how to do the things I needed it to do. Since all the computer could do was perform very simple calculations, I had to teach it the more complicated math myself. This meant that I needed to understand the math myself or there was no hope of getting the desired results.

It was by no means easy for me to get the harder things done, expecially when it came to graphics. The math for computing sprite trajectories or plotting functions on a graphics card was daunting and very hard for me. But I persisted. I looked at example code, I called programmers to ask for advice, I went to the university and sat in on some classes…

I didn’t know it at the time, nor did I care, but ever so slowly, my brain was rewiring itself. The synapses that simply didn’t exist before were methodically joining. Math concepts were becoming easier and easier and I never even noticed.

How long this rewiring took, I can’t really say because I didn’t even know it was happening. It finally dawned on me that my brain was different when I was in the Army.

As much as I enjoyed programming computers, my interest in them waned over the next couple of years. I had already mastered them and since they weren’t my passion, my thoughts returned to science and astronomy. Depression was beginning to set in again, I simply didn’t have the skills I needed to do what I loved most – study the universe.

I needed a change – a big one.

So, in 1985, for reasons that are too numerous (and way too embarrassing) to go into here, I joined the Army. These were hard years for me and I was desperately looking for something I could do since it appeared becoming an astronomer was out of the question. Another passion had always been flying, so I thought I would become a pilot. I applied for and was accepted to go into flight school.

The reason I chose the Army, as opposed to the Air Force, was they didn’t require a college degree to get into flight school. Looking back, it’s strange that I never noticed that the aptitude test for getting into flight school had a lot of math, and I passed it no problem. In fact, I scored quite high. Remember I was pretty depressed at this point so you’ll have to cut me some slack.

Well, long story short, stuff happened to keep me out of flight school. Because of hearing loss sustained during basic training, I couldn’t pass the flight physical. Damn. Now what? The Army gave me the option of getting out early since they couldn’t honor the contract, or pick another job (MOS in military-speak).

Like Richard Gere in ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ I literally had nowhere else to go, so I picked another job: 68J, Aircraft Armament Repairer. It came with 30 weeks of electronics training and I only had to sign up for three years. I did that.

It was during those 30 weeks that I discovered my math blocks were gone. I consistently outperformed every member of my class and graduated number one (you might argue, and quite successfully, that it’s not like Stephen Hawking was in my class, so what’s the big deal?). Still, it was enough of an accomplishment to build my self-esteem and allowed me to accept that maybe, just maybe, I could do this math thing.

Once you’ve spent a lifetime thinking the same thoughts about yourself, it’s real hard to stop thinking them. All of my life here’s what rolled around in my head:

  • I can’t do math, I’m an idiot.
  • If Richard can’t teach me, no one can.
  • I do not have what it takes to be a scientist.
  • Why do I want, more than anything else in the world, to do something that I don’t have the skills to do?

Overcoming my math blocks was only part of the battle. I had to change my beliefs about my new abilities before I could use them effectively.

Realizing that I had made the biggest mistake of my life by joining the military, I got the hell out of there as fast as I possibly could.

After the military, I created a small non-profit organization called The Rocky Mountain Science Center, and started doing science demonstrations in schools. The parents and teachers asked if I could help their kids with their science projects. During the course of helping them, I found myself teaching them simple math concepts, like calculating trajectories for model rockets, or the period of a pendulum.

One day, while working with a kid on his statistics for a population project he was working on, it hit me. Wait a minute, I know math. I can do math. I can figure stuff out.

At the age of 30, the same week my second son was born, I enrolled in the local community college. I filled my schedule with computer and math courses. One year later, I transferred to the University of Colorado and four years later I had my B.A. in physics. I was hired as an associate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research before I even had my degree. I was an astronomer, studying the Sun.

I still have that Apple ][+ computer.

Published by Tony Darnell

Tony Darnell Profile Picture

Tony Darnell is the creator of Deep Astronomy, LLC, a company dedicated to sharing the wonders of the universe and providing perspective of our place in the cosmos. For most of his life, Tony has been interested in science communication and education and has dedicated the best part of his life towards that interest. While embarked on that mission, for 30 years Tony has also worked as a software engineer and worked on writing code for telescopes, astronomy data pipelines, image processing and data analysis. His last gig was the goal of a lifetime: working on data from the Hubble Space Telescope.