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On taking my last math course

<h5>Fine Hall, home of Princeton’s Math Department</h5>
<h6>Rohit Narayanan / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Fine Hall, home of Princeton’s Math Department
Rohit Narayanan / The Daily Princetonian

I felt something was off this term when I started picking my courses, and it took a while for me to understand what it was. Finally, it hit me. For the first time since I graduated preschool, I won’t be enrolled in a math class come spring. As I finish ORF 309: Probability and Stochastic Systems, the last math class I might take on the normal progression, it feels like I’m closing a book I’ve been reading my whole life, having to be content that it’s a story I’m never going to finish.

Whenever I make this observation to my AB friends, they stare at me blankly. I’m an electrical engineer — I’m going to be doing calculations far into my future. But it’s not the same as taking a math course — pushing further and further into the murky depths of numbers and operations. I’m getting off the train of math with the equations I know, knowing the train will go on, moving closer to the fundamental truth of the field without me on board.

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Why do I care? I bundled my essay-writing skills and got off the English train years ago. The natural and physical sciences have become mere tools in my engineering adventures. I walk every day through a massive university filled with passionate researchers unlocking the deepest secrets of fields I’ll barely ever scratch the surface of. The amount I’ll never know is infinite. That doesn’t bother me.

But math is different somehow. My mind goes back to first grade as long division and column multiplication nearly brought me to tears. After a few weeks of wrestling with the topic, I started getting the questions right. “It won’t get this hard again until calculus,” my dad told me. What did I know then about what my life would be like in nine years? I didn’t know I’d be living on another continent, pursuing passions I didn’t yet know I had. Yet we could say exactly what math I’d be taking. It was a constant.

Math brought me to the brink of ruin many times in the successive years — only to lift me up when I got over the hump. In third grade, my attention to detail had gotten atrocious; I was making silly mistakes on practically every problem. The remedy was repeating the course online. By the next year, I was ready to skip a grade in math. I struggled to grasp the Pythagorean Theorem in seventh grade. Two more online classes were in my future. The following year, I was bouncing up the stairs to class each day and playing with math competition problems.

I can close my eyes and taste the victory of mastering a hard concept, snagging every point on a hard test, or presenting the solution to a nearly impossible problem to the class. But it’s also clear that those days are in the past. With the time pressure of high school and college, I haven’t been able to repeat the concepts the way I used to. As a college student, I’ve been diving deeper into my core interests, leaving less time for math. I feel like I’m learning new concepts by reducing them to things I can remember rather than scuba diving in the ocean of numbers and looking for life like I used to.

And yet there are so many tantalizing hints in my last math classes that there’s something more out there: the glorious synthesis of calculus and statistics, algebra and axioms, geometry and number theory. Maybe math will wrap up neatly, validate and explain everything I’ve studied over the past 13 years. That’s a vain hope. There are no more final answers in math than there are in philosophy. It’s clearly time to walk away and focus on the mathematical applications to my field rather than keep taking the next math course.

It reminds me of standing on stage for the last play I’d ever perform in eighth grade. Since then, my time as a middle school actor has made me a more engaging presenter and even an aspiring playwright. But I still sit in the audience of the Triangle Show and think: “I can’t do that anymore.” I’m proud I had the courage to prioritize. That doesn’t make it any less of a loss.

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I hope I’ll be happy with the direction I’ve chosen to take my academics this time around. But every time that train reaches a new station, I know I’m going to feel a pang of sadness that I’m no longer on board.

Rohit Narayanan is a sophomore electrical engineering major from McLean, V.a.. He is a columnist who focuses on academics and admissions. He also writes theatrical adaptations of moments in American political history. You can reach him over at rohitan@princeton.edu or tweet @Rohit_Narayanan.

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