Monkeys can do math so let them solve the oily bamboo problem

A research article published this week in the prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences caught my attention. Two German scientists report that monkeys have the brain structure to learn and apply basic mathematical rules. Chartered accountants and theoretical physicists thought they were unique, but now  this article shows that non-human monkeys can do math too.

I was thinking back to my own painful experiences learning math from sadistic teachers in India. Even now sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.

Sharmaji, sir, if you are reading this, please know that calling us “dung-heads” in third period while bragging about your brilliant son who was a topper at IIT Powai didn’t transform us into Srinivasa Ramanujan. Instead, it scarred us for life. Some of us still have a hard time calculating the tip at restaurants.

The syllabus of Indian Certificate of Secondary Education and West Bengal Board of Secondary Education didn’t help either. There were always these math problems that made no sense at all. For instance, there was this math problem asking how fast water runs out of a bucket with a hole at the bottom and the tap running at the top. We were always advised to solve the problem in our “copy” without thinking about what kind of duffer would wantonly waste water that way.

But the worst ones by far, were the monkey problems. There was always some variant of an arithmetic problem where a monkey tried to climb an oily bamboo at a set speed while slipping. For example, as the monkey climbed two meters, it fell by one. The problem would always end by asking how long it would take for the monkey to climb to the top of a bamboo tree of a predetermined height.

Clearly, the first person who came up with this problem didn’t know anything about anything other than impossible math problems. Why would a monkey climb a bamboo in the first place? What was at the top of the bamboo? Bananas do not grow on bamboo trees, they grow on banana trees. What sort of person would oil a bamboo anyways? How would a bamboo be oiled? What kind of oil would be used? What was the purpose of this stupid exercise?

The more I think about it now, the more my blood boils. Some sadistic teacher decided to take out his frustration on generations of impressionable boys and girls because he (and it has to be a he)  failed to do anything successful in life and his wife was boring and ugly.

I can’t also help but be amazed at just how brilliant non-human primates are! They can actually do math and yet they choose not to!  No longer can they hide this fact though. Now, as humans we can inflict the same sort of pain on them too. Let them do ridiculous problems in which humans try to climb oily bamboos. To make it interesting let us get oily desis with no other purpose in life to actually climb bamboo trees while the monkeys do the math.

Now, I feel that my life has changed. From now on, whenever I need to know the difference between GCF and LCM, I can consult a wise orangutan named Yoda. At least Yoda doesn’t have a brilliant child who is a topper at IIT Powai.

Now monkey… how does it feel now?

© 2009-2011, Anirban

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16 thoughts on “Monkeys can do math so let them solve the oily bamboo problem

  1. LOL. The scientists have said that they ‘can’ calculate, not they ‘do’ calculate. And yes, maths teachers sucked more than the subject at school. If mine is reading this, I want to tell him that I was the most felt dyslexic in his class.

    Monkeys//huh//leave it.

    • Good point. I agree that the fact that monkeys can calculate and that they choose not to is vital. It is absolutely brilliant on their part. :D

      You know I still have this recurring nightmare that I am sitting for a board-leaving exam and I can’t solve a single sum on the paper.

      Thanks for reading (and I love the banner on your blog!)

  2. The monkey-maths were interesting in our life.If monkeys can do math and solve the oily bamboo problems, USA may take all deposited oil straight from Iraq.They may solve the global recession problems.So monkeys are welcome to help us.
    Biplab Majee

    • I have a whole list of issues that I have with how I was taught in school. I could see a psychologist and get on the couch and tell all, but it is more fun to blog!

      Thanks for reading.

  3. LOL! That was too good…

    nd the exam nightmares continue to haunt even me….no aging seems to offer respite…one needs to be completely senile to escape the same I guess…

    Thanks for adding me to Indiblogger :)

    • Usually my nightmare involves the 12th standard exams or the joint entrance exam. The test paper is always in maths for me though.

      Even Alzheimer’s patients usually remember certain fears from childhood even though they can’t recall recent events. More on that some day.

      Thanks for reciprocating on the blog. I’ll be following your blog too.

  4. I am pathetic at MAths and these bloody ancestors of us are suppposed to be at par if not better…I am off to commit a suicide :).

    Brilliant post Anirban and by the way lovely name too :)

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