REALITY CHECK: Not even a brilliant physics teacher can ease my math anxiety

Reality Check | Mike Taylor

Any hope I had of living a private life went by the wayside the first time I griped about one of my ex-wives in print. I try to be as honest as I can be in these columns and sometimes I wind up revealing more than I really want to. Or should.

Too often, these “revelations” serve only to highlight my incompetence, ignorance and personality flaws, all of which are legion.

By way of example, my lack of math skills has been well documented here. Regular readers of this column (Hi, Bob and Joyce!) know that even simple addition can make my head hurt if it involves too many digits (three or more).

Mr. Paepke’s ninth grade algebra was my last real math class. Mr. Paepke did his best with me, but I was not a model student. I’m sure there are still nights he wakes screaming from nightmares of the countless, fruitless hours we shared together in his classroom.

At any rate, I try to be honest about my Jethro Bodine-like arithmetic skills.

Which is why I was so surprised by a letter I received from reader James Bedor the other day. That letter — five hand-written pages! — was sent in response to a comment I made recently regarding my lack of understanding of Einstein’s “Special Relativity” theory.

Mr. Bedor, a retired physics teacher, has taken on the Herculean task of teaching me … gasp! … higher mathematics. And not just math, but PHYSICS!

Mr. Bedor’s attempt is noble, but he’d have better luck teaching French to a chimpanzee. Just ask Mr. Paepke.

In his letter, Mr. Bedor assures me he will only be touching on the “‘simpler’ aspects of Special Relativity.” He then goes on to pen comments such as “…material objects cannot reach the speed of light in a vacuum because the energy you use to accelerate the material object makes the object more massive (energy and mass are two forms of the same thing)” and “Rather than accelerating the object to C, the speed of light in a vacuum (light does go slower than C in transparent objects like water and glass) … Moving objects become shorter in length in the direction which they are moving as seen by an external observer. The limit is zero length as their speed approaches the speed of light in a vacuum (C).”

There are FIVE PAGES of this stuff and it only gets more arcane with each passing page.

Mr. Bedor, I do applaud your heartfelt attempt to lift me out of ignorance, but honestly, what I hear in my head when I read your letter, is “A-well-a, everybody’s heard about the bird / Bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word / A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, the bird is the word / A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, well, the bird is the word — I wonder what “C” stands for? — A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word.”

And the formulas you included (I assume the little drawings with squiggle marks, numbers and letters are some sort of formulas)? Well, I didn’t understand them in Mr. Paepke’s ninth grade algebra class and, if possible, I understand them even less now.

I mean, c’mon! “V2 = N, – N = (19c) – (-18c) = h7c?” And this is the one that has characters I sorta recognize! (Though I have no idea at all what they mean in this context.)

Despite all his mathematical proofs, I’m not sure I even agree with Mr. Bedor’s (and Einstein’s) conclusions. Sure, Mr. Bedor has a lot of numbers, letters and squiggle marks proving nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. I, meanwhile, have nothing but 30 years worth of Star Trek indicating the exact opposite.

I suppose I’m inclined to come down on the side of Captain Kirk, if for no other reason than that he never tried to make me understand math.


Mike Taylor’s book, “Looking at the Pint Half Full,” is available at Robbins Book List in Greenville and in Kindle format at

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