So when these “unsolvable” problems pop up, they simply reinforce our culture’s math anxiety. We all use math daily whether we realize it or not – reading maps, planning routes, calculating tips.
And that’s a real shame, because everyone likes math when they’re young. I once had a flooring installer tell me he was bad at math . When people say they are “bad at math,” they usually mean that they had trouble with algebra, although if you corner them and ask the right questions you can usually make them realize that they use algebra all the time without noticing it.
As a mathematician, I suppose I should subscribe to the “no such thing as bad publicity” theory, except that problems of this ilk a) usually aren’t that difficult once you get the trick, b) sometimes aren’t even math problems and c) fuel the defeatist “I’m not good at math” fire that pervades American culture.
The inability to solve such a problem quickly is certainly not indicative of a person’s overall math skill, nor should it prompt a crisis of confidence about the state of American math aptitude.
This reminds me of the (probably apocraphyl) story of one of the greatest mathematicians in history, Carl Friedrich Gauss.
Legend has it that when Gauss was seven or eight, his teacher, wanting to occupy his students for a while, told the class to add up the numbers from 1 to 100.
This question gives the probability and asks for a condition on the number of candies. You may read the solution (and some humorous memes about the question) here.
Mathematicians dread cocktail parties because we inevitably have to endure the response we receive when asked what we do: “Oh, I hated (or am terrible at) math.” No other subject in school receives such scorn, nor would we find it acceptable for an adult to admit they are terrible at reading or writing.
But through encouragement (ok, and some threats, too), he worked through the problem and solved it.
I told him that life is a series of problems, just like this one.