On the Magnitude of Numbers: Rubik’s Fail
I’m not sure if this is an admission of guilt or an indictment of myself as a beta-nerd, but I just don’t enjoy Rubik’s Cubes.
In fact, if we’re being frank–which raises pronoun-related metaphysical issues–I think Rubik’s Cubes are an excellent analogy for mediocre teaching and learning.
If you’re to be “good” at Rubik’s cube, you are to memorize a set of steps, or choose from a small cadre of these sets based on trivial inputs and variable states.
You’d think this sounds like good math, but it isn’t. Yeah, some of you are super-dweebs and are about to write me a comment about group theory. Look, if you’re teaching group theory to high schoolers, then you can have an account on this blog and write all about it; I promise.
Identifying math in situations where it is the best tool for the job is central to the success of a student in any STEM1 related situation. Sadly, the Rubik’s cube, and its
myriad tens of procedures superficially look like math, but the actual process of math is dirtier, and less, well, primary colored.
Why am I ripping on the Rubik’s cube? Mostly because of this literature they just sent me in the mail on using them in the classroom:
Yup. 14,000 billion years old. Holy shit, Rubik knows something we don’t.
That makes the cosmic microwave background radiation, um, not microwaves.
That means that all the dark energy that physicists have their collective panties wadded up over isn’t actually a significant part of the matter-energy in the universe.
Finally, that means that the Rubik’s cube people should probably stop mailing me garbage about its toys and start collecting its Nobel.
Sadly, in the end, and this is important, the value of a giant number doesn’t matter. Students have no better way to conceptualize 14 trillion vs 14 billion years. It just falls in the folder marked “Old Balls.”
Here’s a proportional comparison:
1. I’m sorry for using the STEM acronym. Here’s an explanatory list from my favorite twitter people:
- Salty Trollops Eating Mangoes – Me
- Stymied Teachers in Educational Malaise – TracePickering
- Savvy Teachers Escape Mania – FourKatie
- saintly triceratops evade all mallcops – TieAndJeans
- sometimes those emoticons matter :@ – maxmathforum
- Sit Then Eat Meat – achmorrison
- Students Try Education Memes – bvancil