The Smell of Mathematics

Earlier this month, Jilly of Eight Ladies Writing discussed the use of scent to enhance our descriptive text. I have had mixed success in my own writing with the sense of smell, and while the short story I’m currently writing has smell as a significant motive for several characters, mostly I find that detailed description in general is an afterthought for me, added during the editing process. There is, however, a story in my personal history that highlights the significance of smell.

As I have mentioned previously, my home town had several farms of note, one of which was a dairy farm. As it happens, this particular farm included property directly across the street from our town high school.  The mathematics department, which abutted the street, was particularly close.

wbhsBeing an older building in a small town, the high school didn’t have air conditioning.  In New England, this doesn’t matter much: during school months, its never so hot that you can’t simply open a window to cool off.  The only real problem happened in the spring, when (you guessed it) the dairyman was mucking out his barns.

May is not terribly warm in Massachusetts, but you often have a few days here and there that peak in the seventies (F).  On those particular days, teachers needed to open their windows to cool off their classrooms.  At the same time, the pungent smell of cow manure rose from the dairyman’s property. It was occasionally so strong that it made my eyes water. You might expect, therefore, that I would associate the smell of cow manure with math, and I do.

What you might not expect is the emotional content of that memory.  Math for me has always been easy, and I was blessed with teachers who didn’t force me to waste time doing the homework as long as I learned the material. Occasionally I was given something interesting to do in class (chess on a TRS-80 comes to mind) so I’d stay out of the teacher’s way and let him teach.  Math was fun.

These days, if I’m out hiking with my wife, we may suddenly encounter the smell of cow manure from a nearby farm. “What’s that smell?” she would ask.

“Math,” I’d say, and smile.

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