Adults and math: Who needs a formula?

OK, this is just one example. It’s purely anecdotal evidence, and therefore it doesn’t prove anything. But it’s still indicative of a problem with adult attitudes toward math. A bit of background first: if you don’t have the good fortune to be a model railroad enthusiast, you will need to know that “HO Scale” (not gauge) is 1/87 and that “N Scale” is 1/160. Now here’s the quick anecdote:

A participant in the HO Railroading Yahoo newsgroup asks the following:

Is there any known formula for converting a N-Scale track layout to a HO track layout?

Where do I begin in explaining why this question bothers me so much? The most obvious reason is the writer’s inability to deal with fractions, even when he has a computer and therefore a calculator; he clearly can’t figure out what operation to perform on 1/87 and 1/160. Some of my ninth-graders in Weston couldn’t do that either, so I suppose it should neither surprise me nor bother me. But the main reason the query upsets me is the opening five words. “Is there any known formula?” Most formulas are the wrong way to go, as they tend to replace thinking with algorithms. Sometimes we do need formulas, but why look for one here? Surely an experienced model railroader knows that multiplying N-scale lengths by 160 gives you real-life scale (prototype, as we call it). And then dividing the real-life lengths by 87 gives you HO scale. Who needs a formula?

Categories: Math, Model Railroading, Weston