فصل 1

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فصل 1

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open the door

What are the odds you’d open your refrigerator door and find a zombie in there, knitting socks? The odds are about the same that a touchy-feely, language-oriented person like me would end up as a professor of engineering.

Growing up, I hated math and science. I flunked my way through high school math and science courses, and only started studying trigonometry—remedial trigonometry—when I was twenty-six years old.

As a youngster, even the simple concept of reading a clock face didn’t seem to make sense to me. Why should the little hand point toward the hour? Shouldn’t it be the big hand, since the hour was more important than the minute? Did the clock read ten ten? Or one fifty? I was perpetually confused. Worse than my problems with clocks was the television. In those days before the remote control, I didn’t even know which button turned the television on. I watched a show only in the company of my brother or sister. They not only could turn the TV on, but could also tune the channel to the program we wanted to watch. Nice.

All I could conclude, looking at my technical ineptitude and flunking grades in math and science, was that I wasn’t very smart. At least, not that way. I didn’t realize it then, but my self-portrait as being technically, scientifically, and mathematically incapable was shaping my life. At the root of it all was my problem with mathematics. I had come to think of numbers and equations as akin to one of life’s deadly diseases—to be avoided at all costs. I didn’t realize then that there were simple mental tricks that could have brought math into focus for me, tricks that are helpful not only for people who are bad at math, but also for those who are already good at it. I didn’t understand that my type of thinking is typical of people who believe they can’t do math and science. Now, I realize that my problem was rooted in two distinctly different modes for viewing the world. Back then, I only knew how to tap one mode for learning—and the result was that I was deaf to the music of math.

Mathematics, as it’s generally taught in American school systems, can be a saintly mother of a subject. It climbs logically and majestically from addition through subtraction, multiplication, and division. Then it sweeps up toward the heavens of mathematical beauty. But math can also be a wicked stepmother. She is utterly unforgiving if you happen to miss any step of the logical sequence—and missing a step is easy to do. All you need is a disruptive family life, a burned-out teacher, or an unlucky extended bout with illness—even a week or two at a critical time can throw you off your game.

Or, as was the case with me, simply no interest or seeming talent whatsoever.

In seventh grade, disaster struck my family. My father lost his job after a serious back injury. We ended up in a hardscrabble school district where a crotchety math teacher made us sit for hours in the sweltering heat doing rote addition and multiplication. It didn’t help that Mr. Crotchety refused to provide any explanations. He seemed to enjoy seeing us flounder.

Me at age ten with Earl the lamb. I loved critters, reading, and dreaming. Math and science weren’t on my play list.

By this time, I not only didn’t see any use for math—I actively loathed it. And as far as the sciences went—well, they didn’t. In my first chemistry experiment, my teacher chose to give my lab partner and me a different substance than the rest of the class. He ridiculed us when we fudged the data in an attempt to match everyone else’s results. When my well-meaning parents saw my failing grades and urged me to get help during the teacher’s office hours, I felt I knew better. Math and science were worthless, anyway. The Gods of Required Coursework were determined to shove math and science down my throat. My way of winning was to refuse to understand anything that was taught, and to belligerently flunk every test. There was no way to outmaneuver my strategy.

I did have other interests, though. I liked history, social studies, culture, and especially language. Luckily, those subjects kept my grades afloat.

Right out of high school, I enlisted in the army because they would actually pay me to learn another language. I did so well in studying Russian (a language I’d selected on a whim) that an ROTC scholarship came my way. I headed off to the University of Washington to get a bachelor’s degree in Slavic languages and literature, where I graduated with honors. Russian flowed like warm syrup—my accent was so good that I found myself on occasion mistakenly taken for a native speaker. I spent lots of time gaining this expertise—the better I got, the more I enjoyed what I was doing. And the more I enjoyed what I was doing, the more time I spent on it. My success reinforced my desire to practice, and that built more success.

But in the most unlikely situation I could have ever imagined, I eventually found myself commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. I was suddenly expected to become an expert in radio, cable, and telephone switching systems. What a turning point! I went from being on top of the world, an expert linguist, in control of my destiny, to being thrown into a new technological world where I was as stunted as a stump.


I was made to enroll in mathematically oriented electronics training (I finished at the bottom of the class), and then off I went to West Germany, where I became a pitiable communications platoon leader. I saw that the officers and enlisted members who were technically competent were in demand. They were problem solvers of the first order, and their work helped everyone accomplish the mission.

I reflected on the progress of my career and realized that I’d followed my inner passions without also being open to developing new ones. As a consequence, I’d inadvertently pigeonholed myself. If I stayed in the army, my poor technical know-how would always leave me a second-class citizen.

On the other hand, if I left the service, what could I do with a degree in Slavic languages and literature? There aren’t a lot of jobs for Russian linguists. Basically, I’d be competing for entry-level secretarial-type jobs with millions of others who also had bachelor’s of arts degrees. A purist might argue that I’d distinguished myself in both my studies and my service and could find much better work, but that purist would be unaware of how tough the job market can sometimes be.

Fortunately there was another unusual option. One of the great benefits of my service was that I had GI Bill money to offset the costs of future schooling. What if I used that support to do the unthinkable and try to retrain myself? Could I retool my brain from mathphobe to math lover? From technophobe to technogeek?

I’d never heard of anyone doing anything like that before, and certainly not coming from the phobic depths I’d sunk to. There couldn’t possibly be anything more foreign to my personality than mastering math and science. But my colleagues in the service had shown me the concrete benefits of doing so.

It became a challenge—an irresistible challenge.

I decided to retrain my brain.

It wasn’t easy. The first semesters were filled with frightening frustration. I felt like I was wearing a blindfold. The younger students around me mostly seemed to have a natural knack for seeing the solutions, while I was stumbling into walls.

But I began to catch on. Part of my original problem, I found, was that I had been putting my effort forth in the wrong way—like trying to lift a piece of lumber when you’re standing on it. I began to pick up little tricks about not only how to study but when to quit. I learned that internalizing certain concepts and techniques could be a powerful tool. I also learned not to take on too much at once, allowing myself plenty of time to practice even if it meant my classmates would sometimes graduate ahead of me because I wasn’t taking as many courses each semester as they were.

As I gradually learned how to learn math and science, things became easier. Surprisingly, just as with studying language, the better I got, the more I enjoyed what I was doing. This former Queen of the Confused in math went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and then a master’s in electrical and computer engineering. Finally, I earned a doctorate in systems engineering, with a broad background that included thermodynamics, electromagnetics, acoustics, and physical chemistry. The higher I went, the better I did. By the time I reached my doctoral studies, I was breezing by with perfect grades. (Well, perhaps not quite breezing. Good grades still took work. But the work I needed to do was clear.) Now as a professor of engineering, I have become interested in the inner workings of the brain. My interest grew naturally from the fact that engineering lies at the heart of the medical images that allow us to tease out how the brain functions. I can now more clearly see how and why I was able to change my brain. I also see how I can help you learn more effectively without the frustration and struggle I experienced.1 And as a researcher whose work straddles engineering, the social sciences, and the humanities, I’m also aware of the essential creativity underlying not just art and literature, but also math and science.

If you don’t (yet) consider yourself naturally good at math and science, you may be surprised to learn that the brain is designed to do extraordinary mental calculations. We do them every time we catch a ball, or rock our body to the beat of a song, or maneuver our car around a pothole in the road. We often do complex calculations, solving complex equations unconsciously, unaware that we sometimes already know the solution as we slowly work toward it.2 In fact, we all have a natural feel and flair for math and science. Basically, we just need to master the lingo and culture.

In writing this book, I connected with hundreds of the world’s leading professor-teachers of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering, as well as education, psychology, neuroscience, and professional disciplines such as business and the health sciences. It was startling to hear how often these world-class experts had used precisely the approaches outlined in the book when they themselves were learning their disciplines. These techniques were also what the experts asked their students to use—but since the methods sometimes seem counterintuitive, and even irrational, instructors have often found it hard to convey their simple essence. In fact, because some of these learning and teaching methods are derided by ordinary instructors, superstar teachers sometimes divulged their teaching and learning secrets to me with embarrassment, unaware that many other top instructors shared similar approaches. By collecting many of these rewarding insights in one place, you too can easily learn and apply practical techniques gleaned in part from these “best of the best” teachers and professors. These techniques are especially valuable for helping you learn more deeply and effectively in limited time frames. You’ll also gain insight from students and other fellow learners—people who share your constraints and considerations.

Remember, this is a book for math experts and mathphobes alike. This book was written to make it easier for you to learn math and science, regardless of your past grades in those subjects or how good or bad you think you are at them. It is designed to expose your thought processes so you can understand how your mind learns—and also how your mind sometimes fools you into believing you’re learning, when you’re actually not. The book also includes plenty of skill-building exercises that you can apply directly to your current studies. If you’re already good at numbers or science, the insights in this book can help make you better. They will broaden your enjoyment, creativity, and equation-solving elegance.

If you’re simply convinced you don’t have a knack for numbers or science, this book may change your mind. You may find it hard to believe, but there’s hope. When you follow these concrete tips based on how we actually learn, you’ll be amazed to see the changes within yourself, changes that can allow new passions to bloom.

What you discover will help you be more effective and creative, not only in math and science, but in almost everything you do.

Let’s begin!

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