Review of How to Bake Pi

How to Bake Pi

I love math. I have zero natural mathematical aptitude. I even spelled the word mathematical wrong, I had to have Google fix it. There’s a rogue ‘e’ in there. So this week, as I read How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics by Eugenia Cheng there was quite a bit of rereading and frankly some outright skipping ahead.

We as humans have strengths and weaknesses. I can fold a fitted sheet. I can pack three cars’ worth of stuff into one car. I can read a book a week without any trouble. On the other hand, I can’t make a new recipe a week, I am a bad speller and I suck at math. I often have trouble adding. One of the reasons is I tend to transpose numbers (Dyscalculia). The number 362 is written on the page. I copy it down as 326. My mom (who was remarkably good at math) thought I was just being careless. When she heard from a coworker that this is a thing some humans struggle with, she stopped nagging me about it. It never occurred to anyone anywhere in my family or my school to get me help with this. Why? The general consensus was that it was just a wiring problem I’d have to learn how to work around. My math education stopped at the doorway of basic algebra. I never made it any farther than 8th grade math.

But eventually I wanted to get a bachelor’s degree and I needed math to get there. So in the fall of 2008, I talked my way into California State University, Los Angeles. I had good grades from my many years at junior college but absolutely no math and they did not want to admit me. Too bad. I went down to the school and walked from office to office until I got someone to sign off on admitting me. I started talking to a man across a counter in a general information office, moved to a table in a cubicle, went to a smaller counter in a smaller office until I finally got to a medium sized office where a man sat at a desk and there was a door he closed for privacy. Everywhere I went, I kept talking, thinking there had to be some magic string of words that would get me in. My GPA (3.79) from all my work in junior college turned out to be a magic number. I was admitted but I had to clear all my remedial math requirements within a year or I would be out. Remember how I said the last math class I passed was at an 8th grade level? I had a year to catch up to college level. I was 35, I hadn’t had a math class in over 20 years. I was a wife, a mother, a daughter to ailing parents, and I had a job. But I wanted a bachelor’s degree. So I tested into a class one above the lowest level (still don’t know how I managed that) and went to my first math class at 8am in the morning.

The instructor was a graduate student, a young slim black man with a melodious voice and the patience of a preschool teacher. I only passed that class because of him. Then there was another class and another graduate student, this one a husky Asian man with zero patience but so brilliant that he could generate practice problems that fit the learning needs of each student in seconds. I passed. Luckily CSULA was still on the quarter system so by the time I hit a year I had even passed my college level math class, a hilariously easy class that should have been called Math for People Who Will Never Add Without Electronic Assistance. I passed. I got an ‘A’ in every single one of my math classes. I studied to the point of mania. Older son used to make me cookies and bring them to my tiny desk in my tiny bedroom, pat me on the back and urge me not to cry so much. There was a lot of crying.

As of this writing, I couldn’t tell you one thing about math beyond basic adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. Fractions mean nothing to me beyond very basic ones like a quarter of a cup or an eighth of a teaspoon. Forget any form of algebra. And geometry? Just no. My brain is just not wired to hold on to that kind of information.

But I loved every minute of those classes (even the studying). It was a whole world I had left behind when I was 13 and I felt grateful to be given the opportunity to finish my journey through it. I will never be comfortable in the land of numbers but I love to read about it. If you choose to read How to Bake Pi and something makes you feel a little stuck or confused, reread. If that doesn’t work, skim and skip until you start to feel comfortable again. I will read this book more than once. There is no shame in not comprehending something right away. I should know.

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