Science Week: A Calculating Child

It’s Science Week this week and to mark the event there’s a little competition running. Details on Damien’s site, but basically all a blogger need do to enter is answer a different question each day about science and technology. As the prize is a Nintendo Wii, which I covet but cannot justify buying, I intend to put my shoulder to the wheel and post throughout the week.

First up we are posed the question:

What was the favourite invention from your childhood?

Though many pieces of technology recommended themselves to me as a child- including such perennial favourites as Lego, small metal cars whose doors could open and therefore permit them to fly without breaking the rules of the game and of course the TARDIS- I find myself prevented from choosing any of them. Lego wasn’t invented during my childhood. Small metal cars with doors that opened to let them fly were similarly a fixture of my father’s youth as much as my own. And the TARDIS, despite not being constrained by such temporal concerns, steadfastly fails to actually exist.

So I’ve alighted on something which swept the world while I was young- the electronic calculator. When introduced in 1971 the Sinclair Executive cost the equivalent of three weeks wages. By the time time I was starting Primary School, 10 years later, the unit cost had fallen to effectively zero. As I entered education an age of built-in calculators dawned. Rulers with built-in calculators teemed in schoolbags. Digital watches with built-in calculators sprouted on the wrists of (other) spiky haired boys. Unless memory betrays me, I believe that Kerrygold gave one away attached to their packets- in effect making them a pound of butter with a built-in calculator.

What’s interesting was the reaction of our teachers to this explosion of computing power. Throughout my primary school years one rule remained unchanged. Under no circumstances were we allowed to use a calculator to help us with our maths. The fear seemed to be that we might learn to rely on our little adding machines and would thus be rendered helpless when they were suddenly uninvented– as they were certain to be.

Well, more than 20 years have slid past. I mostly do rely on my desk caculator to do my sums for me. It’s faster and more accurate than I am. But so far I still haven’t seen any hint that progress is going to roll back, leaving me struggling to remember how to do long division. That doesn’t seem to be how Science works, in my experience.

Progress isn’t automatic however. I still don’t have one of those calculator watches.


  • I struggle to do complex calculations in my head having spent most of the last 20 years using spreadsheets or computer calculators to do the work for me. However I do think it is important that you understand how to do it yerself as those electronic buggers are NOT (I repeat NOT) infallible.

    Also I did quite well in Physics in the leaving cert by understanding how to do the calculations and writing every step of my workings out which picked me up a few marks for everything I wrote down.

    If only blogs worked that way. Better still.. instead of marks, euros. yes.. euros would be preferable.

  • […] deadline I was tempted to go for a TARDIS or similar time travel machine (not a De Lorean as Simon would probably try to open the gull wing doors to make it fly, thus not breaking the “rules of the game”). However I dismissed this as that would […]

  • liam noonan says:

    I still enjoy adding up the products I’m buying in my head while the sales assistant is scanning them and being able to tell the final total before it appears on their till.

    This ability has allowed me to negotiate down the price of a group of sale items.

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