Friday, April 24, 2015

U is for . . .

This month I'm posting Mad-Cool-Math Nuggets to foster an appreciation for all things mathematical. (Because becoming a published author of fiction wasn't challenging enough. (Insert sarcasm mark here. Did that ever happen by the way?)) Am I using parenthesis way too much? I think yes.

 Image courtesy: Ludie Cochrane

Okay, U is for unknown or variable. Is it just me, or should eighth grade algebra be renamed: The Quest for X? I mean, that's all I remember. Solve for x. Find x. Quadratic equations. Word problems. Every single time there was a variable whose value was unknown, we called it x. Maybe we should have used u for unknown or v for variable, but we didn't.

Why x? Well, it's not used as much in English compared to other letters. Using "a" could potentially be confusing since "a" is also a word. So what's up?

To the internet!

Guess what? There is a reason we use "x"! According to this article by LiveScience , an ancient Arabic algebra text from 820 A.D. used the word "thing" for variable. For example, 4 things equals 20 for scholars waaay back when would become 4X = 20 for kids today with a solution of "things" being 5 or X = 5 (because 4 times 5 is 20).

The Arabic word for "thing" was šay'. (Don't even think of asking for a pronunciation.) In the translation to Old Spanish, šay' became xei, which was later abbreviated to "x". Aha. Mystery solved.

Seen this image? You can get t-shirts or posters bearing this joke.

Image courtesy: Brandon I.

As a math professor, I would have viewed this as pathetic. The student just didn't study. But as a writer, I gotta give the student credit (or partial credit at least). The problem did not say "solve" or "find the value of" ; it said "find". Word choice matters, peeps. Am I right?


From today through Monday, you can download my novella, Ghosts of a Benevolent Place, for free. Here's a blurb:

Having an autistic child is plenty challenging. Now throw in a teenager, a perpetually traveling husband, and a full time job. Audrey Ericsson has it all and then some. One day, by a little gazebo on a forgotten stretch of Lake Ontario, Audrey meets Gloria, whose husband Winston suffers from Alzheimer's. The unlikely friendship that blossoms between Ian and Winston is nothing short of miraculous to Audrey. When Ian begins to spell out words with rocks on the beach, Audrey is first thrilled, then puzzled, and eventually frightened. Are the mysterious stone messages from Ian, Winston, or something else entirely? (Approx. 74 pages)


  1. Algebra was the worst for me. I always liked that saying.

    So X means "thing?" That's interesting.

    As I mentioned before, I love geometry and laughed at that picture. How silly!

  2. Now we know where we get X.
    Here it is! That is priceless.

  3. The Quest for X sounds like a great middle grade book! And I love the Dear Algebra funny:)

  4. So, that's the explanation for the unknown x. Cool, I hadn't heard it before.

    I think x is the most common symbol for the unknown in generic math books at any level. In mathematical physics, however, the unknown is represented by various symbols, depending on the physical phenomena we deal with. Today I've been computing an unknown that I called A, trying to compute the amount of natural radiocative heat generation in crustal rocks. As always, math is my most useful toolbox >:)

    1. Real world application of math? That's like chocolate to math profs.

  5. Thanks for the free download of your book. I’m going to read it later.

  6. That's pretty cool on how x became x. I enjoyed equations and solving for x in math classes. It's those word problems I didn't like.

  7. I never knew the story behind X. I always just thought it was a letter that was used for no special reason.

  8. Oh, fun little bit of math trivia!!! And I love that meme--yeah, as a teacher no credit, but as a non-connected bystander it's hilarious.

  9. Oh, fun little bit of math trivia!!! And I love that meme--yeah, as a teacher no credit, but as a non-connected bystander it's hilarious.

  10. I love algebra. I get to help my kids with their math homework and get to tell them how cool algebra really is.

  11. Thanks for the x explanation. X is a bit magical anyway - x marks the spot - but this makes sense!

  12. I loved both of your images today:)

    Gosh, I hated algebra... and I think I'm breaking into a sweat just thinking about those horrible problems I had to solve...

  13. Triple thankyou--for another fun post, for visiting my blog and for your book which I'm looking forward to reading. In Portugal, I had to work a small switchboard called, I thought, a baby sheesh. I had no idea what a sheesh was but it sounded rather like a cuddly pet.
    It was a long time before I learned it was a PBX.

  14. Thanks for that explanation. Next time a student asks, I'll have an answer for them. (It does come up from time to time.)

    I love those cartoons. I've seen them before, but they still make me giggle.

  15. Haha.. And think of the countless students who curse this 'x' of Math!
    Surely worth a share in my Math Classes group..! :-P

  16. I had never considered X in this way until reading this.Another day, another lesson! Thank you.

  17. Love all your images! The X illustration was very funny. As a mathphobe, I can really appreciate the way you demystify the mysteries.

  18. Haha, very good, opening maths to all haters! Good work.

    Hello from a fellow AtoZ-er!
    Almost there... x


  19. افضل شركة تنظيف بالاحساء افضل شركة تنظيف بالاحساء
    افضل شركة تنظيف شقق بالدمام افضل شركة تنظيف شقق بالدمام
    افضل شركة تنظيف شقق بالمدينة المنورة افضل شركة تنظيف شقق بالمدينة المنورة
    افضل شركة تنظيف شقق بالرياض افضل شركة تنظيف شقق بالرياض


I will do everything in my power to visit commenter's blogs unless I've been abducted by aliens or my children get sick. (If my children get abducted by aliens, I will be very busy, of course, catching up on my sleep.)