Steve Martaindale

Author of the JP Weiscarver Mystery Series

Do the math

Pick something that’s a commonly accepted part of everyday life today that did not exist at some point in your memory.

Got it? An easy one would be the Internet. Even my daughter can claim that. Personal computers go back a little further. Refinements in medicine. Communication. You get the idea.

I’m going with calculators.

Right this moment, if someone asked you, “How many seconds are there in a year?” you would do what?

Surely, you would pull out pencil and paper, multiply 365 days by 24 hours a day by 60 minutes per hour by 60 seconds a minute and, within about 90 seconds, you would say, “31 million, 536 thousand.”

No? Not today? But it’s likely that’s exactly what you would have done only 40 years ago and it’s most definitely how you would have computed the answer 50 years ago.

Unless you were handy with a slide rule, in which case you would have placed the cursor at 3.65 on the D scale and aligned the left 1 on the C scale. Sliding the cursor to 2.4 on C, you would slide the rule to the 1 on the right end. You would then have moved the cursor to 6, slid the right 1 to it again and slid the cursor to 6 again.

Your answer is about 3.15. You count the decimal places you dropped – five – plus the two you picked up in the calculation and answer, confidently, “About 3.15 times 10 to the seventh power.” Quicker but less accurate.

Nope, today you would have pulled out a cell phone, opened the calculator app and had the exact answer in a matter of seconds. Or used the calculator on your computer. Or there’s one on your watch or in a drawer or on your desk.

“Siri, how many seconds are in a year?”

“31,556,952 seconds.”

See, there’s something we didn’t even think about. A year is not exactly 365 days. Or even exactly 365.25 days.

Those younger than the age of 40 … maybe even 50 … might have a difficult time envisioning life without handheld calculators, but we functioned. (Get it? A math joke.)

And, yes, I’m willing to pull out the ultimate old fogey line: “We were able to put men on the moon without them.”

Not that I in any way want to go back to those days. Nor do I lament that children are being robbed of an education because they do not learn how to use a slide rule or, even, because they might have a difficult time performing the calculations on paper.

No, I’m more anxious about seeing what becomes outdated next because of yet another discovery.

Who’s with me?