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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bell jars and bell curves

To those who do not know Mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty,
the deepest beauty of nature. ... If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature,
it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in.
Richard Feynman. 1918-1988. American physicist.

As those of us who can - work through school, college and those who are gifted (in both senses) take the university detour we identify, refine and utilise our intellectual strengths. This entails that we must also come to recognise our limitations. Looking heaven wards the day dawns that the "way of the astronaut" is a step too far, that's OK others can fly for me. ... At some point and usually much too early in academic careers specific aptitudes, intelligence and abilities crystallise into that form of diamond known as yea or nay. Statistics have it that there are many average scholars out there. Some people are average in maths AND English (languages), a smaller proportion excel in one or the other. So, how is your essay writing? Or should I ask how is your number theory?

The bell curve has its say, but having that bell jar placed over you is just the start of the story. Minds should be constantly enquiring. The result is coming across things you cannot fully comprehend and yet you have this real sense - you know - that "there is a tool here I could use - if only...."

At work we will naturally share many abilities with our peers - including befuddlement when it comes to maths. The nursing literature includes an ongoing parade of titles dedicated to explaining maths and stats to the numerically challenged.

In the mid 80s the dichotomy between the SCIENCES and HUMANITIES was illustrated for me in a working paper from the school of geography at University of Leeds. I still have it, saving it for a rainy day:
Galois stampMacgill, S.M. (1984). Structural Analysis of Social Data, A Guide to Ho's Galois Lattice Approach and A Partial Re-Specification of QAnalysis, Working Paper 416, School of Geography, University of Leeds.
Abstract 1985

I came across this like a moth to a flame (thankfully I found an egg-carton to hide under). I began to work through the paper and had a puncture before even leaving the lay-by. My '84 A5 copy is rather basic in terms of print quality. Showing it to a few people at the time they thought perhaps there were some printing errors. They may well be right although may be they were also being kind. It wasn't just a 'NO ENTRY' sign, it was a brick wall I had met before. Some teachers reinforced this wall; while there were many others who did their level best to help me find a way through, or around. The truth is my cognitive wiring just ain't up to it. Referencing a paper is one thing, plumbing its depths and applying it is another.

So the obvious conclusion from this mathematical close encounter (more like a distant approach really) is that I'm challenged when it comes to maths. I've worked my may through (IBM) SPSS descriptive stats and some 'real' stats; implemented BASIC search algorithms. But away from the lecture-IT room the knowledge quickly evaporates. I'm utterly fascinated looking at the world-universe within and around me, but I'm knee deep in a river and dying of thirst. There are millions of people haunted by the spectre of their ineptitude with numbers.

This is one of the main points of Macgill's text. The paper highlights an approach of great potential to social science researchers (including health and social care?) and yet the people most in need of such methods are frequently disadvantaged being unable to fully understand, grasp and apply these tools.

So tantalising, so frustrating - the glass is very frosted for this 'average student' (lifelong learner!).

Is it just about opportunities or opportunities to break the frosted glass?