Does Anyone Else? #1

Does anyone else? #1

Whenever I get a new math book, I do something I call “cigar sniffing.”

In the same way a cigar fancier (I’m told) enjoys a new cigar by smelling it before smoking it, I like to take a fresh book and flip to the back. In the back, you always find math that looks utterly inscrutable to you. You might be able to pick out some operations or mathematical “words” and “phrases,” but it probably, literally, looks like Greek to you.

To me, this is one of the best parts about learning – the knowledge that all the gibberish in the back will eventually be obvious to me. I suspect this is a big part of the difference between people who enjoy math and people who don’t. When I see a mathematical sentence that looks difficult, I get excited. I think a lot of people see them and think “I could never understand that.”

I do the same thing with mathy science books. For example, when I first got into physics, the big question I wanted to understand was (don’t laugh) “How does a refrigerator work?” And, of course, when I flipped to the back of the book there was a whole section on heat pumps. I deliberately waited to learn that until I had read every previous page. The process took close to a year, but when I finally got to thermo, it was a true delight – physics was my year long cigar.

So, how about you? Do you cigar sniff?

Taking a page from reddit, here’s a behavior I engage in:

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10 Responses to Does Anyone Else? #1

  1. Alex says:

    Oh, wow.
    Yes. Yes I do.

  2. Westicle says:

    When I get new math textbooks I usually scan through them and think, “Man, I’m gonna learn all this by the end of the semester/year”. It’s usually a fun experience.

  3. Sam says:

    I am totally in the give-up camp, but not before a healthy (and fun) bout of complaining! I suppose that’s why I’m not a math major, and why my brain turns off when my physics major and math major roommates start talking about their fields.

    Instead, my impatience is nicely matched with Chemistry, where (once you’ve got a decently broad base) you can jump to almost any chapter in any book and learn about that very specific thing.

  4. Dinosaur says:

    I do this, particularly with foreign language books. Whoa, look at all those words that look like gibberish – I’m totally going to understand all of that in a few months! :D

    But at first I thought you were literally talking about sniffing books. I do *that* with new books. Especially glossy magasines and those planners with plastic covers. o.o

  5. Rick says:

    I do this too.
    However, I sometimes start reading the book from the back to the front. It’s kinda fun to read something that references an earlier topic, going back to that topic, and continuing like that until you get to the beginning of the book.

    I also like to literally smell the pages of a new book >.>

  6. Kjeld says:

    Just like Rick, I like the smell of a new book.

    Also, the refrigerator-question also bothered me as well. I knew what happened, I read it quite often, but it took me a long time to finally grasp it.

  7. Yottabryte says:

    physics and math were my majors. My eyes just glazed over when i looked at the back at the math stuffs, but i eventually learned it. The math was not my forte (I wasn’t a slouch though or i wouldn’t have made it). It was the concepts that stood on the math’s shoulders that motivated me. I would however look back at the math that i had learned and think “man, that’s pretty trippy how that works” once i had groked it. In particular, the half semester spent learning the basics of special relativity was in retrospect quite beautiful (A travelers guide to space-time is a great book for laying it all out in a really compelling and beautiful way). As was reaching some of the mathematical basis for the shapes of the electron shells (spdf ya know). When i took calc in high school i flipped through the book early on and read the brief biographies of the historical contributors to mathematics, especially calc (and it’s underpinnings). I would read the stories of these brilliant prodigies and polymaths. Towering giants of intellectual accomplishment all. I so wanted to be them. It took a long time to realize that i wasn’t going to be (for a variety of reasons). I guess i was more of a math groupie. Since college i’ve developed more of an appreciation for what they did than for what they were. I spend a lot of time reading about weird stuff on wiki, and my eyes still glaze over when i get to the large blocks of mathematical symbology that means nothing to me, but without the discipline of school behind me, it’s hard to find the motivation to actually try and understand it. Oh, also, refrigeration is an awesome concept to learn about, even if it seems like it would be pretty mundane. To get really wigged out read up on magnetic refrigeration (the basic thermodynamic cycle is the same, but it’s a really stunning way of approaching the engineering of it)

  8. WT says:

    This is similar to the Soviet method of reading nonfiction, where the reader will turn to the index and citations to get a taste of what the book contains, the types of sources it references, etc.

    This is the best way to grok a monograph if you only have a few moments to look at it.

  9. serp derp says:

    I always do this! This is the best part of buying a new math book.

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