Logarithms and their part in my confusion

It was Arnie Summers’ job to teach us third years the intricacies and actual purpose of the logarithm, sines and cosines.

He failed, spectacularly.

He tried hard I’ll give him that, all year long he tried but on that first day in that third year he never successfully answered the first question that was on everyone’s lips when he tried to explain what a logarithm was, that question was “Why ?”

Forty three years later I still don’t know what one is, or why it is, and despite the fact that I may have benefited by a logarithm at some point in my life’s journey, I am certainly unaware of its passing by me, I may be using a logarithm right now, logarithms may be used in computer keyboards for all I know, but I don’t know, I know nothing of logarithms, their lifestyles, their habits, nothing what-so-ever.

I liked Arnie Summers, he was a good teacher of maths and sports, Carnegie College trained and proud to wear the beige track suit around school instead of the masters gown he became our form master on our first day at Leeds Modern School and coincidentally as he told us on that first day, it was his first day of teaching too, so we sort of grew all up together, all grew into our long trousers together, well apart from Rodney of course, but Arnie Summers never managed to teach me any maths and he never managed to teach me any sports either so in that respect you might think he was a bloody rubbish teacher, but he wasn’t, he was alright was Arnie Summers, its just that he couldn’t teach me anything, possibly because I never wanted to learn anything he specialised in.

I’d like to continue this post in a grand manner, explaining what a logarithm is, and/or a sine or even a cosine, but I can’t, that really is the end of the matter, I really haven’t a clue what one is, I could probably cut and paste a huge long explanation from Wikipedia and you’d think that I must be brilliant and have gone to adult education night classes to have learned such a thing but the truth is that if I pasted such a thing it would be meaningless to me, moon-man language, a series of letters and numbers only recognisable if you broke them down into their single elements but utterly meaningless when joined together.

Take a look at the Wikipedia definition and discussion on what a logarithm is, then take a look at a page of Mandarin script and I defy you to notice any difference at all and if we on this earth ever do get invaded by alien beings with intellects far greater than ours then all we will need to do is show them that logarithm page from Wiki and they will apologise for invading earth and explain that they’d been wrongly informed that we were an inferior species without their superior intellect but now they can see that this is clearly not the case and they are sorry for troubling us but they’ll be on there way – little knowing that 99.9% of earths population would not know where to start reading that Wiki page and that most of them would think there was a problem with their computer monitor having scrambled up all of those random characters like that, maybe a computer virus or suchlike.

I was lucky, I knew Vaz, and Vaz was then, and is now, a Professor of Hard Sums, in fact Vaz is one of the worlds leaders in hard sums, is very rich from being good at hard sums, is now retired and tours the world talking to other people who are good at hard sums and impressing them with his knowledge – Vaz was in our class, we went to school with a world renowned Professor of Hard Sums, and we copied off him, profusely.

So profusely did we copy off him through that third year that we all got top marks and Arnie Summers got to thinking that he must be some sort of teaching ace for at Teacher Training College they’d all told him that teaching Logarithms in the third year would be the worst time in his career ever, but we all seemed to take to it like a duck to water, sailed through the homework, all got the same top mark in fact, all got the exact same answers too…

I do recall that the logarithms involved a small A5 booklet that was handed out to us all one morning, preciously, as if this tiny publication held the formula for creating universes and indeed it may have, for it made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever, in fact it was just numbers, columns upon column of numbers, page after page of column upon columns of numbers – it was probably the most boring book I have ever read, most books have a plot, a character introduction, a bit known to authors as “the peril”, a solving of the peril, a conclusion and then a twist in the last chapter but one – see, I know about writing books me, I’ve read them too, but the logarithm book was just numbers and try as I might I couldn’t get into it, there is just no sense in writing a novel by means of numbers, you need some letters in there too, believe me, it doesn’t work without letters.

Only Vaz understood the logarithm book, it became his bible, he probably still has it with him, right now as he’s reading this he is probably reaching inside his jacket pocket and lovingly stroking the by now frayed and torn outer leaf, he probably has every page committed to memory and will not need the logarithm book anymore to do his hard sums, Vaz has the sort of brain that knows how much his supermarket bill is going to be, to the penny, even while still standing in the queue at the checkout, he even knows what your grocery bill will be, long before you do.

Apparently the logarithm book would help us solve hard sums but for me it never achieved any useful purpose at all, when Arnie Summers handed out the precious booklets at the start of that term he warned us not to draw in them or deface them in any way, shape or form for we had to hand them back at the end of the year, they were not a gift, merely a loan book, he need not have worried on my sake for when I handed the precious booklet back to him at the end of the year it was pristine and quite obviously had never been opened, he stood there for a minute staring at the crisp clean still-new cover, shook his head, stared with pity at me, “This explains so much about your awful exam results” he said to me, and he was right too.

From memory there were two other things associated with logarithms and I actually recall what they were called – Sines and Cosines but that is where the knowledge stops, I know what they were called but still do not know what they were supposed to be used for, more hard sums I suspect, in which case I have no interest at all, Logarithms, Sines and Cosines, you have not troubled me for these past 43 years since youth hood and you will not trouble me now, get behind me and be gone, there is no room in the museum of recollections for thee.


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