Thursday, April 11, 2013

6.0221413 e+23


Avogadro’s Number

Derive Avogadro’s number.  This was the simple homework assignment for our Freshman Physical Science class at the New York prep school where I was determined to be somebody.  My dad had slyly predicted that I would fail out by Christmas and would come home crying to my mother’s aprons and the local penitentiary style public school.  I wanted to push and prove myself at the all boys, academically oriented prep school.  I didn’t want to go to the dumb schools and chase girls and wallow in mediocrity all my life.  This was my chance to be somebody, to be a contender, and it would set the pace and direction for the rest of my life.  But I am getting ahead of myself.

I sat with my slide rule and my mother, a math teacher, for hours working with big numbers and small exponents.  Or was it small numbers with big exponents?  We were both good with math, nurture and nature, from her years of experience and my affinity for numbers.  We spent weeks in my formative years with flash cards of the time tables and we went beyond the normal limit of twelve’s.  We did real, imaginary, prime, rational and irrational numbers, squares, square roots, identity, inverse, π, ℮, Logs, Natural Logs, Factorials, Secants, Arc Tangents, Derivatives, Integrals, Fibonacci, Fourier Series, Eigen Values, the definition of zero and the proof of unity.  We were math geeks; we had fun with it, we got the feel for it and we could run numbers in our head. But Avogadro’s number had us stumped.

Dad came home and could not help.  He did not have the numbers in him.  We discussed getting some help, a tutor I thought.  But Dad went out and came back with a small box; the help.  We opened it with some trepidation, plugged in some AAA batteries and turned the switch on.  A small, red, shaky LED light illuminated – 0.00 and we were on our way.  Our TI-100 could add, subtract, multiply and divide, square but not square root and could handle exponents up to 99 all for 100 dollars (500 in today’s currency).  We were ruined for life.  We solved for Avogadro’s number, Planks Constant, Gravitational constants on all the planets, the speed of light and sound in a vacuum but we could feel a flicker going out inside of us.  The numbers faded.

I made it thru prep school with my calculator and graduated to bigger prep schools and better calculators.  I found reverse Polish Notation, programmable and graphing models, multi color screens and printers.  When I got an engineering job they morphed into mainframes, mini-computers, desktops, laptops, that could perform trillions of calculations in a matter of seconds.  I found Apples and Macs and iPads and Smart phones which could not crunch numbers very well but could communicate, draw, play music and create.  All the while my feel and love for numbers died a slow steady death in my head.  Numbers were just lifeless tools, symbols of something bigger and real, outside of my head and me.  The LED in my brain faded to black and like everyone, my void was filled with email and social media, Apps and Web pages.  The instantaneous uncertainty of it all left me anxious and filled with anxiety, lacking the confidence that a good number crunch can give you.  My special ability and gift was rendered irrelevant and useless.  My father was right, I was not a contender.

The other day we came upon a couple of  kids selling lemonade on the side of the road for 50 cents a glass, 3 for a dollar!  We said ‘give us 5 glasses’ and they freaked.  They broke out their two dollar, super-computer-calculator but could not get it to go.  They peered up at me helplessly.  ‘How about $1.66’ I offered and they looked at me incredulously as I gave them 2 dollars.  ‘How much change’ they asked me, pounding on their calculator unsuccessfully.  ‘34 cents and keep the fractions’ I said.  They were dumbfounded.   I told them my numbers story and started to play a game with them.  ‘3 times 17’ I asked and they went blank.  ‘51’ I said, ‘Dick Butkus’.  ‘16 times 16’ they asked me, ‘256’ I said, ‘Bill Gates - Bits’.  ‘3 times 33’ I asked, and they said ’99 Wayne Gretzky catching on to the gist of the game. ‘2 to the 10th’ I asked and received blank stares.  ‘1024’ I said, ‘trick question, Steve Jobs - Bytes’.  These numbers meant something.  We went on and on but one kid said quickly that he didn’t want to play anymore.  The other was fascinated and we had great fun.  He had the numbers in him and he looked at me with a fraternal gleam in his eye.  I was still somebody.   I was a contender.  My mom and dad and Avogadro would be proud.