My Days Aren’t Numbered

The plight of those of us who live without math skills

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have shown that children as young as three, with no formal schooling or training, can have an innate “number sense” that lets them correctly estimate quantities. Research fellow Melissa Libertus created an experiment in which preschoolers were shown a quick flash of a computer screen bearing a mix of yellow and blue dots, then asked if there were more blue or yellow. Those who estimated correctly more often subsequently proved better at simple math skills, implying that some of us have natural mathematical abilities.

That would not be me.

I have an older sister who’s a mathematician. It’s what she does for a living. Her field of topology is so obscure to those outside the world of mathematics that she can’t really discuss what she does with anybody else in the family—or many people outside it, either.

I, on the other hand, am challenged not just by any form of numerical calculation, but by an inability to tell left from right without seriously thinking about it. I’m hopeless at reading maps, or any other form of spatial relations. I can speed-read books, and write iambic pentameter, and spell like a complete pro, if only there were such a thing as a professional speller. But numbers, angles, percentages—these all stymie me.

I think about this dichotomy sometimes. It’s as though my sister and I were two eggs that got scrambled in the shell: She ended up all white, and I’m all yolk. My life would be incredibly simpler if I didn’t have to print out the reverse directions every time I use Mapquest—if, like my husband and son, I could automatically remember that if I went left on the way there, I go right on the way home. Or if I could correctly estimate the cost of an armful of groceries. (Just last night, I had to run out to the car when I was 75 cents short buying two bags of birdseed and some grapes. I thought for sure I’d come in two bucks under the $20 bill in my pocket—and I weighed the grapes.)

It’s hard for me to imagine the way the world looks to my sister. I picture it as a lovely, predictable grid, with every quirk and nuance reducible to a formula. (Sky minus clouds equals sunshine! The arc of Ryan Howard’s swing times the velocity of the pitch coming at him equals home run!) Whereas for me, the physical world is a convoluted place ruled by laws I can’t quite grasp. Why, to the universal amusement of my neighbors, do I hit the curb every single time I park my damned car in front of my house, even though it’s been the same car and the same curb for the past 10 years?

Sometimes—when, say, I get hopelessly convoluted trying to balance my checkbook (and who am I kidding? I never balance my checkbook)—I wish I were more like my sister. But then I think how, well, boring it would be to always have one’s bearings. To my sister, the world is like England, all planned out and mapped and tamed, whereas to me it’s always the heart of the Amazonian jungle, dark and overgrown and ripe for exploration. Every day’s a new day when the mere act of getting out of bed in the morning puts you slightly off kilter. (Where’d I leave my keys again?) Physical space may always be a mystery to me, but I’m up for the challenge. I just have to get my shoes on first. Is that the right or left?