Thu
Jul 24 2008 8:07pm

It\'s Official: I\'m Less Intelligent Than a Worm

That's because your common roundworm can do calculus and I can't:

Like humans with a nose for the best restaurants, roundworms also use their senses of taste and smell to navigate. And now, researchers may have found how a worm's brain does this: It performs calculus.

Worms calculate how much the strength of different tastes is changing — equivalent to the process of taking a derivative in calculus — to figure out if they are on their way toward food or should change direction and look elsewhere, says University of Oregon biologist Shawn Lockery...

I will sometimes also use my math skillz to acquire food, but in my case, it's usually limited to "do I have to dip into the 'take a penny' dish to buy this Snickers bar?" Which is not the same thing, I suppose. Stupid nematodes.

You ask, but John, you are both a science fiction writer and a science blogger -- aren't you required to know calculus? By law? Well, apparently not. And in fact, I was the only person in my graduating high school class not to have taken calculus, a fact that drove my school's entire mathematics department insane. Occasionally, one of the math teachers would corner me and try to coerce me into it:

Math Teacher: Come on, John. All the other seniors are taking calculus. You won't be cool if you don't.

Me:But I don't have to, do I. The school doesn't require me to, does it.

Math Teacher: Well, technically not...

Me: We're done here. 

I went back for my 20th year reunion last year and apparently the math department still holds it against me. Please don't tell them that even worms can do calculus. I'll never hear the end of it.

21 comments
Mike Brotherton
9999. Mike Brotherton
Calculus (called "calcuseless" by some I knew) was the first math I really loved. It was magical, non-intuitive, and very very useful for all kinds of problems. I remember trying to help a friend in a non-calculus-based physics class solve a problem. The technique he was using made it very difficult and required pages of calculations. It was about three lines to solve using calculus.
Mike Brotherton
9999. Sean Eric Fagan
If you can figure out that going in one direction and hearing a sound grow louder means you are walking towards the source of the sound... you're doing as much "calculus" as the roundworms are.

It's a lot closer to subtraction than differentials, I'd have to say -- based on that article, anyway.
Avram Grumer
9999. avram
Yeah, what Sean said. Your body is doing calculus all the time. Or rather, there are processes in your body that require calculus to formally describe in mathematical terms.

It's like the difference between being a flower and painting a picture of a flower. It takes a human artist time and effort to arrange pigments on a canvas so that they look like a flower. The flower just looks like itself all the time. Does that mean the flower is a better artist?
John Scalzi
9999. Scalzi
"If you can figure out that going in one direction and hearing a sound grow louder means you are walking towards the source of the sound... you're doing as much "calculus" as the roundworms are."

So that's how it works. Dude, my world has just been totally rocked.
Mike Brotherton
9999. akabrady
Man this makes me feel better. As an aspiring SF author, when you compare yourself to Stross, or Reynolds, or Azimov, you start to wonder if you have to be an astrophysicist or scientist to write SF.
Gabriele Campbell
9999. G-Campbell
Lol, I managed to piss off both my maths teacher and the feminist classmates by telling him, " I'm a woman, I'm not supposed to be god at maths."

No, I don't believe that, but it was fun to watch the reactions. :p

The true reason I was not good at maths was my laziness.
Debbie Moorhouse
9999. GUDsqrl
Never mind, John. You're still prettier than a worm.
Debbie Moorhouse
9999. GUDsqrl
(that is you in the picture, right?)
Tzut Tzut
9999. WillieMcBride
You can't do calculus?!? Your 'school' didn't require you to learn calculus?!? It didn't require you to take calculus and it dared to pass itself for a 'school'!??

I'm shocked! Shocked, I tell you.

By the way, the school I went to (all the schools of that type in this country) didn't include calculus at all, not even as an optional subject, but at least I studied Greek and Latin and after I graduated I had the decency to choose an engineering school to complete my education.
David Keck
9999. dkeck
avram... Is it just Scalzi's body that's doing calculus, or are there other bodies out there?

(For example: I'm sure mine's been doing a variation on the uncertainty principle since I wrenched my knee playing touch football with some bridesmaids ten years ago).

We might save a great deal of money on fancy graphing calculators if we could puzzle this out.
Avram Grumer
9999. avram
Nope, Dkeck, it's just Scalzi's body doing calculus for all of us. The rest of the physical universe relies on him for those calculations. When he dies, another person will be chosen to do it, like the Jewish notion of the Messiah, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Bruce Cohen
9999. SpeakerToManagers
avram
Or the guy who runs the chocolate factory, right. So who's doing geometry?
Mike Brotherton
9999. midleton
Cory Doctorow. He's THAT cool...
Jack Lavelle
9999. caliche
Here I sit at 60, well-read but math-illiterate. I somehow ducked advanced algebra as a senior in a NYC Catholic prep school.

My first year at a well-known Catholic university (yup, THAT one) was a panic (as in, 'I was panicked.') I knew no calculus, algebra, whatever it was. I had to get into a guaranteed 'C' class so I could move ahead.

That shames me to this day. Many of the books I read are popularizations of physics or math - Kaku, Lightman, John F. Cramer, Capra, etc.

I think what I'm looking for is atonement.
Dave Bell
9999. DaveBell
Calculus was part of where my math abilities hit a brick wall.

I have some understanding of the ideas behind it, but actually doing it...

One the other hand, since it can take a mathematician over 360 pages to prove that 1+1=2, there are times I wonder why I even bothered to get that far.
Patrick Shepherd
9999. hyperpat
For a disciple of Heinlein to not know basic calculus is sacrilege. And how did you do in the other fields of math - topology, probability and statistics, matrix algebra, tensors, set theory, transfinite theory, numerical analysis, information theory, chaos theory, game theory, symbolic logic, and (4 more pages of subjects)? I bet you can't even calculate a simple transfer orbit! Are you sure you can balance your bank account? I know, this last may be beyond your control, given the bank's sneaky methods of inserting funny charges on your account and burying them deep in the fine print, but still...
Phillip Nunemacher
9999. philn
I always remember something Issac Asimov wrote about mathematics and a persons level of comprehension. The exact quote escapes me, but it went something like this.

"Everyone reaches a certain level of mathematical ability beyond which they can not proceed. Fortunately, mine is high enough that I can enjoy a wide range of experiences."

I remember this because I reached my own level of ability when I got into Numerical Analysis and hit a brick wall.
paul wallich
9999. paulw
It's not just worms, it's pieces of wire. Anything that has an inductance will calculate a derivative. Capacitors can do it too if you set them up right. But it gets worse: a single electron, one of the simplest and most brainless particles there is, is calculating probabilistic distributions of three-dimensional multiple integrals some ridiculous number of times every attosecond. With aleph virtual photons tied behind its back.

Sadly, the basic concepts of calculus are incredibly simple. It's just the notation and the detailed implementation that are such a pain. (Did anyone else have a professor who said things like, "The greeks stopped using this letter a long time ago, but I will use it anyway"?)
Mike Brotherton
9999. Ron Avitzur
You're smarter than you think. Why, every time you catch a ball, you're solving differential equations!
Mike Brotherton
9999. fmayhar
I, too, hit a brick wall at calculus. Unfortunately it was required for my degree. Took me three tries and I'm convinced the professor took pity on me at the end.

Fortunately, as a software engineer (otherwise known as "the kind of engineer that isn't") I have no need of calculus. I can't tell you how relieved I am that that's true.
Opher Lubzens
9999. Antongarou
Calculus is evil.Matrix Algebra OTOH...:)

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