It wasn’t always clear that I would pursue mathematics with such vigor. In High school, I had a different pursuit. Over the course of four years, I prepared myself for the day that I would enter college as a physics student with a concentration in astronomy. I was shook as an 11 year-old reading A Brief History of Time. My purpose was clear. I wanted to study the universe.

I double downed on this idea in high school. Refining my goal when the first pictures were returned from the Mars Rover. I wanted most to attend Caltech and work at JPL—an ambitious goal for a motivated teen.

To prepare for this career, I convinced my father that I should attend math courses as part of summer school. He was making me go, and I might as well take Algebra 2. He responded, “Wouldn’t you rather do something fun, like drama?” I knew that I needed this course, so that I could take AP Calculus in my senior year. After an argument with my father, I convinced him this was the right thing to do, and he ultimately relented.

The only college that accepted me was UC Irvine. It is notable for the work of professor Frederick Reines, who received the Nobel Prize for his work with Clyde Cowan on detecting the neutrino. Not a bad program at all, and still close to my home in Los Angeles, CA.

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Self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover.

Portrait of author Susan Silver

SUSAN SILVER

I’m the writer with a mathematical muse. I love words, numbers, dreaming big & helping others. I believe that whatever you imagine, you can become. They/Them.

All my training…
The years of study…
Were pummeled by my freshman year of physics.

I had just set foot on my journey and I was already performing poorly in my physics classes. I would go over the answers on tests with teachers after class. The concepts were difficult for me to grasp, yet I had no trouble working with and manipulating the equations.

It was a problem with no obvious solution.

My frustrations grew profoundly day by day. I began the decline into depression and anxiety. Achieving my JPL dream as a mediocre physicist wasn’t possible.

So, I changed my major to psychology.

Giving up on the dream.

It was a traumatizing experience. There is a feeling of “What do you have left to live for? If you couldn’t make this happen, how can you make anything happen?” I felt like I was losing my identity. My dream had defined my experiences, and all that was left was grief, loss, and regret. This weighed heavily on my conscience and anchored me to the ground. The depression made me feel like I was trapped in molasses. I had low energy and it was difficult to make a move.

At this time, I was already aware of the fact that I was non-binary. I just knew that I didn’t see or experience gender the same way as most of my peers. This was also combined with the knowledge that I was not straight. No one was as aware as I was about the need for representation in the sciences.

For years, I felt a strong sense of shame about dropping out. I felt like I had let everyone – the world – down by not continuing my STEM education. I had to be the one way to break through, right? Because I had the passion and motivation. This was a heavy a burden that I was carrying on my shoulders. I now know that I needed to do it for myself, and that is what mattered most.

A curious thing happened.

I began taking one math course per quarter. Even though they were not needed for graduation, I found myself taking courses in multivariable calculus and linear algebra.

There was a compulsion to continue my mathematics education.

This had nothing to do with grades, honors, or even a degree, nor was I studying for any professional occupation.

I just wanted to know stuff.

My academic counselors didn’t seem to notice these unnecessary courses. No one asked if I was interested in a minor or switching my major. My mathematics professors never asked why I was taking their courses. I never even thought a career as a mathematician was possible for me.

There was no purpose, and I was fine with that.

There was one person who did take notice. My father. He demanded that I stop because he was paying for my education. Those classes cost money.

(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) “Science Library, UC Irvine” by Alex Pang

Cypress Dormitory at Humboldt State

The Cypress Dormitory at Humboldt State

This lead to an argument that, along with many other issues, resulted in me dropping out of school. I later applied as an independent for student loans. Using that money to finance my transfer to Humboldt State. There, no one was responsible for my education except for me. And I thrived. I graduated in 2006, with my BA in Psychology.

A conflict brewed within me.

I was never able to reconcile my love of math with my failure in physics. There was a multitude of conflicting feelings inside of me. It was a bitter sweet experience. A bliss tinged with the sorrow of disappointment in myself for not achieving my goals.

I knew the ignominy of defeat.

I pushed my pain, sorrow, and good feelings to the bottom of my psyche—so deep that mathematics infiltrated my subconscious and entered into my dreams at night. These visions were the last vestiges of my former life.

Flash forward to my thirties. I was unemployed and living with my mother in a retiree community on the coast of Oregon—a beautiful but isolating place. Discovering the YouTube channel Numberphile
for the first time.

YouTube changed the trajectory of my life.

I remember telling myself, “Okay, this is good, but I’ll stop watching if they don’t impress me with a video for 12-12-12.” Doesn’t that seem like a ridiculous thought? I was in deep already. These videos were resonating with feelings that I had buried.

Then this video appeared, and I was hooked. I found myself sobbing; I was experiencing new emotions not comprehending their origin. Something deep inside me was irritated, like someone kicking sand into my eyes.

I began binge-watching the videos and each time had similar reactions. There had to be a way to process these experiences, so I began writing in a journal. I imagined having conversations with others and what they would say.

After a month, I had written 30,000 words about my deep and abiding love for mathematics—the conflict that I felt had subsided.

Under all the layers of fear, anxiety, loneliness, separation, humiliation, shame, and rejection, I had cultured a pearl. Watching Numberphile had polished these feelings into something that I could express to the world.

A Writer's Illicit Love Afair with Mathematics

“By fourth-grade, I had the vocabulary of a teenager and the math skills of a kid in Kindergarten”

It is not our abilities that define us, it is our choices. I struggled with mathematics as a child. In fact, I flunked fourth grade math and had to repeat it the next year. Learn how my love affair with mathematics started.

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A live well-lived with mathematics.

Life is the journey not the destination. We spend our life pursuing goals, not realizing all the information we absorb in the process. I was soaking up mathematics like a sponge, but these thoughts lingered in my subconscious. Math was always there for me, in my darkest moments, and it is what I love. That is why I intend to go back to school to get my undergraduate degree in mathematics. I feel that I strayed from the path and I am eager to continue my education.

Learning mathematics was a transformative experience for me. That is why I want to write about it for others. We often conflate our emotions with our abilities. People are living with math anxiety, unaware of their emotional state. That it is an emotional state. As adults, we can re-evaluate our feelings and determine if they still serve a purpose in our life.

I don’t expect to turn math haters into math lovers. I just want to open people up to the possibility that you can shape and re-define your relationship with math and science.

Is there a YouTube channel or blog that has influenced you? Tell us in the comments!

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