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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Math Geek Mom: Infinity and Aardvarks
September 10, 2009 - 9:28pm

Last week, my first grader came home with thoughts about math (I love it when she does that!) She said that, since one hundred plus ten was “one hundred and ten”, that, therefore, infinity plus ten must be “infinity and ten”. Of course, infinity is not a number that can be added like one hundred, so the analogy did not hold. Indeed, infinity is one of those math concepts that lead one to wonder if they are studying math or, perhaps, instead studying philosophy.

Back in the 1980s, when I first learned statistics, I was told that if you had an infinite number of monkeys blindly typing at an infinite number of typewriters (remember them?) for an infinite length of time, eventually one of them would type the works of Shakespeare. This meant that rare events were likely to occur, given enough time, and that one could not approach statistics by looking for rare events, but by proposing hypotheses and then testing them.

My daughter’s mathematical reasoning, even if it was wrong, led me to think about the concept of infinity and “forever” as I celebrated the anniversary of surviving my brain tumor nineteen years ago this week.

I did not have a choice about having brain surgery nineteen years ago, although I did make lots of jokes about how “I need this like I need a hole in my head.” Although no one told me at the time, I now know that I was in great danger of not just dying, but of possibly surviving and living a very strange life. At the time, there was no way of the surgeons knowing if they were severing my short-term memory as they operated. It was possible that I would survive, but have only my long-term memory left. I would be able to drive, since I had learned how to drive years ago, but when I got into a car I would not know where I had set out to drive to, or why I was planning to drive there. Today, such surgery is done with the patient partially awake, to make sure that nothing vital is destroyed. But then, to know what kind of a life I would have, they needed to wait until I awoke to know if I had my short-term memory intact. They did this by asking me to remember a word, “aardvark”, which I then successfully repeated to them a few minutes later. To this day, the anniversary of that surgery is celebrated in our home as “aardvark day”. Despite what might be assumed by my absent-minded professor personality, I emerged with my short-term memory intact.

I am reminded of the concept of “infinity” on this anniversary, because the whole experience was one of looking into a great abyss, of facing the fact that I will not be here forever, and that the world will go on someday without me here. It helped me to re-think what mattered in my life, as I learned how to walk again and even how to type. As one friend said when he heard that they originally thought I had a tumor with about a 5 year survival horizon, “it certainly takes the pressure off of tenure.” It sure did, although tenure remained an important goal for me, and I did go on to earn tenure later, once I was fully recovered. But he was right in that the experience did re-align my priorities and help me to see things on a larger scale. That larger scale included finishing my dissertation, marrying my husband, and adopting my daughter. While I would never wish the experience on anyone, it was actually a positive force in making me a better person.

And so, this weekend, I will celebrate the 19th annual aardvark day with the two people whom I promised to love forever; my husband and my daughter. Through them, I can see infinity.


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