Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ice and Numbers

            The phone rang shortly after 8 this morning and before my supervisor had a chance to open her mouth, I blurted into the receiver “Snow day!”

            She laughed. Indeed, the community college where I teach had closed as an ice storm rendered our New Jersey landscape treacherous.

            For the 15 young people I was scheduled to introduce to large format photography this afternoon, missing the first day of class will prove to be an annoying inconvenience. I, however, am happy to have this free day. It will be my opportunity to study algebra.
Icy geometry. These shapes can be expressed by equations. I think.

            If the specter of an a late-middle-aged man learning a brain-twisting subject like algebra seems a bit of a cultural stereotype, let me assert that I am not doing this to ward off Alzheimer’s. There is absolutely NO evidence that learning tough subjects, taking supplements, twisting your body with yoga or taking up weight-lifting (to name but a few anti-aging fads) protects the brain. No, I am learning math not for prophylaxis, but for pleasure.

            One of the truths I grasped as I plunged into baking some years ago was how perfectly this occupation fit me. Not only was I making food, I was creating. Moreover, I was using the tools of science and technology in the process. Watching me work, my wife remarked how much the kitchen had become like my old darkroom studio. Indeed, scattered around the counter now are liquids in hand-labeled jars, measuring cups, scales, rulers, a flatbed scanner, my iTouch, a pH meter and a calculator.

            It is this last item that has chosen to fascinate me.

            To create the kind of bread I bake, I’ve had to do plenty of research. Somewhere in the depths of it I encountered the phrase, “Bakers simply manipulate time and temperature to achieve their results.” This concept is absolutely parallel to photography: in the Zone System, we manipulate exposure, development time, and developer temperature to achieve desired qualities. That these concepts can be expressed as mathematical equations (for example, H = et is the law of reciprocity, which expresses exposure) fascinates me.

            In truth I never understood the math of photography as much as I wished. I can perform a test that shows how film contrast (CI = ˙∆d/log∆H) responds to development, and then I can graph the results, but expressing the curve of the graph in an equation is beyond me.

            Now that I’m working with dough and not film, I want to grasp things at a deeper level.

            Something similar to development seems to happen when dough is fermented. Will, I wonder, knowing more math make me a better baker? However, the events that pushed me over the edge –  sending me to the bookstore and the app store (to download a graphing calculator program) – were two non-kitchen incidents: staring at the calculator and receiving a heap of disapprobation on Facebook.

            In the first, I found myself recalling why it was that two individuals solving the same problem with two different calculators could achieve two different answers: calculators work by adding and subtracting logarithms, which can be carried out to any number of decimal points before rounding. A cheaper model will be rounded at a lower number; thus its answer will be different from its more expensive brother.

            Now that’s fascinating. (Well, it is to me. It does demonstrate the malleability of “truth”, does it not???)

            On Facebook, I was “yelled at” for not “realizing” that “There is no safe amount of mercury.” This got me thinking about 0 (zero), the fact that there is a safe amount of mercury (or any other chemical), the statement above (malleability of truth) and such esoteric relationships as Boyles and Charles laws, the contents of human cells, and statistics and probability – none of which I fully understood, or at least not well enough to express as equations.

            So I’ve decided to get a grip and learn the subject that flunked me out of Ohio State in 1966 – calculus. To do that I’ve had to go all the way back and pick up a copy of Algebra I for Dummies. Every day now involves amusing struggles. I work my way through a few paragraphs, then write out some problems and solutions, then put the text aside. Waiting on my coffee table are Algebra II for Dummies and Pre-calculus for Dummies.

            I don’t know if calculus will make me a better baker, but the promise I hold out to myself is I’ll be able to draw some cool graphs. When I get to that point I’ll decorate my blog pages with them. Probably (hopefully!!) my breads will be on the market and selling like (ahem) hotcakes before then – but who knows?

            (Now, let’s see, there must be a way of expressing the relationship between those two items with an equation. What might it be?….)

Curve in snow, from a series of photographs done in the '90's. Math is always there, lurking beneath the surface....

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