I always thought mathematics at school was all about being taught a new language – one that helps us live in a culture built on numbers, enables scientists and engineers to understand and control the world we live in, and enriches us by revealing the underlying complexity and beauty of the universe.

I was wrong…

I now know that mathematics at school is all about learning to use a high end Texas Instruments graphing calculator.

I came to this revelation while purchasing my 12 year old son’s school supplies a couple of weeks ago.  The supply list stated, and I quote,

“ALL Algebra I and Algebra I Honors are REQUIRED to purchase a TI-83 plus or TI-84 calculator”

(The emphasis has not been added – this is how it appears on the school’s web site)

The TI-84 Plus graphing calculator - every seventh grader should have one!

The TI-84 Plus graphing calculator - every seventh grader should have one!

Back when I was at school, my math teachers had some funny ideas.  They thought it was possible to do mathematics with a pencil and paper.  They had this idea that equations could be plotted and solved using graph paper.  And they adhered to the archaic notion that learning the language of math was more important (at that stage) than the actual numbers.

No wonder I’ve had such a stunted professional life as a scientist – unlike today’s enlightened education authorities (in the US at least), my teachers didn’t realize the absolute necessity of owning a graphing calculator.

I must confess, because of my ignorance, the penny didn’t drop when I first read my son’s supply list. Because I had been so sadly impoverished in my mathematical education, I assumed that these TI-gizmos were bulk standard scientific calculators.  Oh no – these are top of the line Texas Instruments graphing calculators; the cream of the cream in the world of pocket sized number crunchers.

Conveniently, the local Staples store had a prominent display of the calculators, and boxes of them just waiting for parents eager to give their seventh graders the best possible math education.  Very kindly, the store was also selling insurance policies to go with them – just in case your son or daughter lost or broke their beautiful new $100 purchase.

I must confess though, I was a little shell shocked by the cost and complexity of this algebraic marvel – probably because I hadn’t had the benefit of such a wonder as a child.  So I did a little digging around as to whether this is a standard item in the young person’s mathematical education, or whether it was just a local thing.

I now know that almost every reader of this blog in the US who graduated sometime in the past 20 years or so will have had the advantage of a TI graphing calculator in their mathematical education.

Apparently, the TI-83 or (ideally) the TI-84 graphing calculators have been essential items in US schools for decades.  There are even textbooks (so I’m told) that require these devices, and exams that are impossible to take without them.

Interestingly, it always seems to be the Texas Instruments calculators that are needed.

It was at this point that it hit me: This is where my life had gone wrong.

Up until now, I thought I had been doing okay.  I had a good degree in physics.  I graduated with a doctorate in physics from the University of Cambridge in the UK.  I’d managed to do some reasonably innovative research over the years, publishing a few papers – although admittedly, only a handful have been in high impact journals like Nature.  I even had a reasonable job.

But I had never had a TI-83 (or TI-84) graphing calculator!

For years, I’ve been under the delusion that a $20 scientific calculator is all you need to make it in this world, together with pencil and paper, and maybe a computer for the complex stuff.  I can only imagine what heights I could have scaled, if only I’d of had a TI-83 from Texas Instruments!

My one consolation is that I’m not alone in this.  Having become aware of this crippling omission in my professional life, I began asking colleagues about their own experiences.  And here’s the real tragedy of this story – so many great intellects around the world have been held back it seems, because they never understood the importance of a good graphing calculator.

A senior research advisor in UK admitted to me just this last week to never having fathomed the relevance of these instruments.  Another good friend and highly influential scientist was highly skeptical of these button-festooned pocket data plotters.  Who’s to know—with a TI-83 graphing calculator, they could have been advisors to prime ministers, or Nobel Laureates!

In fact, I’m left wondering whether the mandatory use of TI graphing calculators in US schools has been the secret of the country’s mathematical success in recent years.  I’m sitting on a plane while I type this, and so cannot check the figures.  But I bet when I do it will be clear that, thanks to Texas Instruments, the mathematical ability of students in United States far surpasses that of other countries.  Unless of course, TI have been generous enough to share this intellect-expanding invention with education agencies, boards and curriculum developers beyond US borders…

Fortunately, I now have a chance make sure my son has the advantages I never have.  And there’s going to be no expense spared.  I was tempted to buy him the cheaper TI-83 plus graphing calculator.  But I gather from my research that the $120 TI-84 plus has a significantly faster processor and is the recommended choice by many.

It hadn’t struck me before that processing power is important when it comes to buying a calculator.

Now I know better.

Thank goodness for the internet for that piece of enlightenment – I could have ended up buying my seventh grader a real dud.

And thank goodness for Texas Instruments – today’s highly mathematically literate generation owes you.  Big time!

Andrew Maynard