“Stand back everyone, I’ve been trained for situations like this…”

Last night my friends and I ended up talking about real-life situations in which our math skills serendipitously came in handy. And I got to reminisce about my one exciting “Thank goodness I paid attention in math class!” moment:

I was a high school kid, working as a summer intern at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (this was back in my “I want to be a museum curator” phase). In the sales office one Friday afternoon, I overheard a conversation between my two bosses:

Boss 1: “The new ticket collector didn’t keep track of child and adult ticket sales separately this week. All she sent us is the total number of tickets and total revenue. 953 tickets, \$9,050 revenue. But the accountant wants us to record child and adult sales separately.”

Boss 2: “Sigh. All right, I guess we’ll have to go get the pile of ticket stubs and sort them all. What a pain in the ass…”

Me (gasps, runs over): “Wait! We don’t need to sort ticket stubs! We already have all the information we need to solve this!”

Boss 1: “We do? How?”

Me: “We need to set up a system of equations! Okay, let’s call A the number of adult tickets and C the number of child tickets. How much does each one cost?”

Boss 1: “Adult tickets are \$10, child tickets are \$6.”

Me: “Okay! So we know that the total number of tickets is 953 so we can write A + C = 953. And we know the total revenue is \$9050 so we can write \$10A + \$6C = \$9050. So we have two equations,  two variables:

A + C = 953
10A + 6C = 9050

And now we just solve:
10 (953 – C) + 6C = 9050
4C = 480
C = 120. Therefore A = 953 – 120 = 833.
So that’s the answer — we sold 120 child tickets, and 833 adult tickets.”

My bosses were delighted with the “cool trick” I had used. And I like to think my 7th-grade math teacher would have been tickled pink if she’d seen that go down. How often do you get to actually apply your word-problem skills in real life?

Nothing quite that math-textbook perfect has happened since. Though I keep hoping that someday I’ll overhear someone saying, “My friend and I wanted to meet up for lunch tomorrow, so we agreed to each leave our apartments at noon and walk towards each other’s place until we met. He walks at a rate of 4 mph and I walk at a rate of 3 mph. If only there was some way to figure out where and when we would meet so that I could make a lunch reservation…”

14 Responses to “Stand back everyone, I’ve been trained for situations like this…”

1. Barry says:

“She’s here! She’s here! The mathematician is here!”

2. Andrew T says:

Math-textbook perfect indeed, that’s hilarious!

3. reggossi says:

In real life situations I guess math skills make you avoid saying false statements rather than solving real life problems. See for example : http://mathsresult.wordpress.com/2011/05/31/best-math-trap/ Also the very common mistakes with percentages !

4. Cory Albrecht says:

I could take the train to NYC next spring for NECSS if you’ll meet me at Penn Station, and I will conveniently forget to tell you my arrival time. 🙂

5. Kevin says:

Since everyone seems to be linking to xkcd, let me join in: http://xkcd.com/208/

I cannot think of such a story for myself right now, but a friend told me a good one. Last summer, he was interning at an engineering company, and used the definition of a dot product to find the angle between two vectors (to solve some problem they had encountered in one of his projects). His boss was literally thrilled by this.

6. alex says:

I’m sure you’re familiar with Feynman’s competition with the abacus seller.

If I may go off on a tangent here…

I’d guess that 99% of the people who take math in high school beyond “Algebra I” never find an occasion to use it later. On the other hand, I can’t count the number of times my (very limited) knowledge of statistics has come in handy. It seems like every time I read the paper I come across an instance of statistical malpractice quoted approvingly by the writer and I end up throwing down the paper in disgust*. It seems reasonable to replace some high school math by a few classes on statistics.

*Metaphorically speaking. A downside of reading the news online is that there is no way to really throw anything. I’ve tried a very resolute click on the “x” to close the tab, but, you know, its just not as satisfying.

• Max says:

I’m sure you’re familiar with John Allen Paulos’ A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper.

I agree that probability and statistics are more useful to most people than, say, calculus. High school math basically follows high school science. First, Algebra II and Biology, then Pre-calculus and Chemistry, and finally Calculus and Physics. The science classes counterintuitively go from high-level biology to low-level physics, but that’s because the math gets harder.

• Ole Phat Stu says:

But Feynman forgot to mention the number of the cab he came in 😉

[abstruse in-joke for mathematicians]

7. Dick Kovar says:

What stupendous kids the Galef-Post merger wrought!

8. Phil Goetz says:

Well, of course, after I learned calculus and acoustics I was able to estimate the power transferred to a baseball from the loudness of the hit in decibels, then compute its trajectory and run and catch it. That was when I first realized I wasn’t very good at math, because the other kids picked that up much faster than I did.

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