When I was in school, teachers used story problems to convince us that math could be relevant to our lives. Yet when reading a passage that began with the words, “One car is traveling thirty miles per hour, and a second car, twenty miles behind it, is traveling in the same direction at forty miles per hour,” the first question to occur to me was never, “How long will it take the second car to catch the first?” Rather, I wanted to know more. I mean really, would the cars stay constant? Or would they encounter hills? And how would that topography slow them down and then speed them up the way it did my father’s car when we traveled in the country? This was decades before cruise control. Were there equations for that as well? I really could not learn to trust numbers completely. The numbers seemed too neat, and reality too messy.

And then there was the question that this raised about what was nonessential. What about the make and color of the cars? Which state had issued the license plates? Since this was to enter the realm of the short story, was there the potential for a deer to run out into the road? After all of these details, any equation I might solve on behalf of the second car would be, at best, an approximation. This was described by my teacher as having math problems.

I thought of it much more broadly than that. Story problems were used at a higher level to put men on the moon. Whether in space, on Earth, or on the moon, numbers are absolute. But the story problems I was expected to solve weren’t set in outer space. The assumption that I should just ignore the real world, with all of its obstacles, well, I simply was unable to go there. And should I really ignore the fact that there were details I was not being told?

That, to me, has always been behind the failure of story problems. What exactly should be nonessential? * Story problems proved to be irrepressible with television. The persuasion of my teachers must have been enhanced by the time I was nine when, every week, I tuned in to TV’s Lost in Space, a show that seemed to shamelessly drop terms from science but also seemed to have very few science fact-checkers working for it, and the term “light year” was being used as frequently and randomly as the words “cake” or “apple.” This was 1965, eight years after Sputnik and actually quite far along in the space race, and it seemed that shows like Lost in Space and Star Trek were making colonizing other planets a normal occupation, at least to nine year olds. One night, I asked my father, “How far is a light year?”

The sheer love of science that came as he used his stubby number 2 pencil on his news reporter’s yellow pad and began to explain it came as a revelation of character. I think I understood then that I could relate to him if I could get him talking about science. I still remember his talking through the layers of multiplication tables that led to a number with thirteen figures. Then he rounded the figure off to twelve zeroes to 6,000,000,000,000: light traveled nearly 6 trillion miles in a year.

As I already suggested, I have always tended to see things in terms of my immediate surroundings, what I think others, especially scientists, characterize as the nonessentials. As my dad handed me the tablet of equations and I stomped around the house saying things like “Wow” and “No kidding,” I saw the dining room light and most of the lamps in the living room with new respect. Here, suddenly, was vastness all about us in capital letters, Time and Space. Here was Alpha Centauri—the destination of the family in Lost in Space, four light years, or 24 trillion miles distant—hanging in the vastness. Here were the fruits that result when numbers inflame the imagination. Math really was for the brave of heart. * I not only started to think about distant places and question the science behind the space ship in Lost in Space. I also became aware of forces that were invisible, like light, gravity, radiation, and wind. The trouble is that I began to think about them in basic poetic terms. Today, my response to my father’s equations strikes me as an early warning of future struggles with higher math that might come to someone who should really be writing fiction. After just getting by in high school geometry, I longed for the day in trig when my teacher might stoop to at least define cosines. Outside of class, at home when I was made to put in extra study time, I had only the course textbook to help, and it was clearly written for insiders, skipping steps the way my teacher did. After weeks of struggling in class and staring for hours at a textbook that might as well have been the fragments of an ancient manuscript, I went to my trig teacher for help.

“Excuse me,” I said after class, “you wrote all of these lines of stuff on the board, but can you tell me? The textbook doesn’t define cosines. What are they?”

My teacher waved his hand and repeated what he’d said in class. Then he turned to me. “You see now?”

I was dull. Nothing in what he’d repeated from class could help me. I said “okay” and walked away depressed.

If I could claim to have had an epiphany that day, it would be this: the connections between higher math and anything resembling the “real world” are unconvincing. It may seem silly that a professor of English should insist that math represent the real world, when French literary scholars have given us so much literary theory since the nineteen seventies that has poured scorn on the suggestion that a text, any text, could signify something real. In my theory courses in grad school, readers “nostalgic for reality” were regularly sent packing for detective novels. But as I reflect on my adult lack of desire to travel to other planets, I understand that at the root of my math problems is a nostalgic desire to return the basic math of my elementary school years, where we used apples, and the functions had to do with balancing a checkbook. This desire, I now understand, was behind my despairing of ever understanding trigonometric functions.

A few years ago, I asked a school colleague who taught math about those cosines. I told him of my sorry work in math classes, and he was exuberant at having the conversation turn to this topic.

We stood in a parking lot on the edge of the college campus where we both worked, and he pointed at the tallest tree that towered over the buildings behind us and said, “Imagine you’d like to know the exact angle from here to the top of that tree over there.” I followed the angle of his straight arm as he pointed to the top of the tree. “Imagine you want to know that.”

“Well, that is just the problem isn’t it?” I said. “I mean, I don’t normally want to know that.”

My friend didn’t hear me, though, as he launched into an explanation of how to figure out that angle. It took him five minutes, but when he finished, I realized that nowhere in any of his explanation was there a definition for cosines.

Here I was, forty years after doing poorly in trigonometry, still without a clue, but now convinced that math cannot be translated into known tongues. This, I know, is true of the higher levels of any discipline. As with every mystery, including bosons, fermions, and doctrines of the trinity, most aspects of higher math are not open or connected to everyday life.

Certainly, long before this I had to come to terms with the idea that I not only would have to live without cosines, but that I could. What my friend helped me understand was this: Other than people working for the phone company or for NASA, only people who looked at trees and wanted to know the angle between them and the tree would need this sort of thing. In other words, to the obsessive-compulsive, cosines mattered.

I wasn’t completely right, however. Today, we no longer have a space race, but the military seems to have made use of all the terms I didn’t get in high school trig. So we have drones we can control from an army base in Colorado to bomb a Pakistani family eating dinner because a known Taliban fighter is walking by. Perhaps this was the real, if unintended, result of the space race. It looked like we were going to populate other worlds, but now we seem intent on having the capacity to depopulate our own.

There remain these occasions when I wonder if we haven’t made math more relevant than it should be, taken those old story problems too far.

We should not treat math as mere numbers. Our imaginations are inflamed by equations; the worst personalities of our day are empowered to act on the least desirable impulses, even as we have watched our federal deficit approach one fourth the distance to Alpha Centauri.

Again, I think in terms of my immediate surroundings. I’ve learned the math to do the humble trick of keeping a checkbook and figuring out how to have enough money each month to attend a few movies.

Thomas Allbaugh is an associate professor of English at Azusa Pacific University, where he taught Composition, Rhetoric, and Creative Nonfiction. His stories, poems, and essays have appeared in a number of venues, including Relief, Pedagogy, and Writing on the Edge.