The Sciences


Cosmic VarianceBy cjohnsonOct 19, 2005 2:36 AM


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I was sitting on the bus this morning while it took me to work, and I was working out a computation on the back of the paper I'm editing, scribbling furiously, pausing every now and again to look around at the people. In other words, one of my usual morning activities.... I look up at one point to see a little African-American girl in a cute bobble-hat (I'm guessing she was about 6, or 7?) carrying a pencil and a large notepad, sit down next to me. When I look up again, she's continuing whatever it was she was doing when she got on the bus wth her mom (sitting elsewhere) - she's doing a computation! She writes (in really large, confident, pencil marks):

25 x 10 = 250

Then she thinks for a bit and writes:

29 x 10 = 290

Then she looks at what I'm writing for a moment or two, then turns back to her own (obviously more interesting) work and thinks for a bit more and writes:

24 x 10 = 240

At this point I'm feeling a bit self-conscious but very pleased about the picture the two of us must make, sitting at the back of the bus heads down calculating. I carry on. So does she. I notice after a while (I've got the corner-of-my-eye thing down to a fine art in case you're wondering) that she's decided that her multiplications need no further sharpening (or whatever she was doing) and turns to a new page and starts drawing a flower.

So now I'm frantically thinking of something to do to bring her back to the mathematics. (Nothing wrong with drawing a flower, but so much more unusual to see little girls absorbed in mathematics on their own like that) My stop's coming up, so trying to start doing a silent reply to her work on my own page (perhaps a series of multiplications by 100?) -which would probably work eventually- would not work in time. Then I turn over my work to reveal a page which had one the paper's figures on it. Her eyes flicker over to it for a moment and I see my chance. I tear out a square with the figure on the right on it and give it to her. Our silence is broken for the first time with a little "thank you" from her. She immediately turns it over to the blank side and starts doing more multiplications by 10 on it. My stop is really coming up now and so I just have to hope that she'll eventually turn it back over and find something interesting about the other side. When I gave it to her, I was hoping she might have noticed how interesting it is that the curves all go through the same point. As I'm about to retrieve my bike from under our seat, she turns the square back over and asks me what she should do with it. So I point out the feature of the common point. So she says "oh, there are seven of them" and promptly draws a set of seven curves near the old ones, also decaying to the right, but now all going through the number 2! * * * Sorry if this is boring to you, but I just thought that was great! It really made my day, in fact. I've no idea what (if anything) will come of our encounter, and will not pin any great hopes on it, but it certainly is one of my favourite public transport conversations of all time.... -cvj

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