Hi,

I know that you'll probably hear this a lot, but ever since I was a kid I loved dinosaurs. When I got older, I would grab any textbook or resource book about them and I would study it. I watched as many documentaries as I could find and researched things online about them...But I also looked at their climate, and dating rocks and things like that. I did this up until grade 8 or 9. It has always been my dream to become a paleontologist, even now it's my one and only dream. When I talk about it to people they say my eyes light up with passion, up until they ask me why I stopped studying it. So here is my problem: I'm not good at math at all. I don't understand it very well, unless it was in Essentials of math, but never anything higher.

So is there a way for me to still become a paleontologist while being completely inept at mathematics? Or should I give up?

Thank you!

It is possible certainly. I work in palaeontology and I am no maths whiz. It has been a major disadvantage for me and it can be a problem. You should work hard to improve your maths, it will help. But it is *possible* yes.

Yes, it's possible.  I know a couple of very productive palaeontologists who are not very good at maths, and one who has trouble with calculating percentages.

But mathematical competence will give you a huge advantage, and learning some statistics in particular will be very helpful.  I strongly suggest that you redouble your efforts to master maths rather than seeking a side-path that will let you skip it.  Do the work.  Give yourself every advantage.

nothing is impossible but maths is always important in science. most of the best mathematicians I know in biology did not start out that way. Rather they are often people who saw that maths skills were important and worked hard to improve their own areas of weakness, then at some point realised they had overtaken everyon else by accident!

It is also worth pointing out that you are probably not 'bad at math'. Like many students you probably became discouraged by one bad experience with math; perhaps it was a particuarly difficult course or maybe an incompetent teacher. Most students take this experience as evidence that they simply are not mentally equipped to understand mathematics. But there is no biological reason (apart from some extreme cases at both ends) why one person should be good at math and one person should be bad. All that matters is how motivated you are to learn the material and solve problems.

I'd even say being inept at maths is a precondition for becoming a good dinosaur paleontologist. Just look at me! ;)

But there is no biological reason (apart from some extreme cases at both ends) why one person should be good at math and one person should be bad. All that matters is how motivated you are to learn the material and solve problems.

Really? This seems like a fairly extreme, blank-slate-ish position. Can we actually be so confident that there are no genes that could give one person, within the very broad range between the "extremes", more mathematical aptitude than another? And even if what might be considered strictly biological reasons are excluded, there's still the possibility that factors like exposure to mathematical reasoning in early childhood could make a big difference.

I'd still encourage anyone who has initial difficulty with mathematics to keep trying, perhaps using a different approach. With the right teacher, the right book or the right educational software, things might "click" in a way that they didn't before. I agree completely with Brent that some people who consider themselves to be "bad at math" have just had a bad experience, and with Mike that it's a good idea for an aspiring palaeontologist to persist with math even if it's a struggle. But I have a hard time believing that motivation is literally the only factor in success, and I think this attitude might easily set up false expectations. Some people will likely have to work harder than others to achieve the same results.

I think we can agree that there are at least two major variables that determine how difficult it will be for you to become proficient at a a particular skill (it does not have to be math, I think the same principles would apply to sports, music, learning a foreign language, etc.): one is your baseline aptitude which is mostly determined biologically (a tall person is always going to be a better basketball player than a short person who has the same amount of practice); the other is your motivation to actually put in the effort. My opinion is that the former (especially for abstract concepts like mathematics) shows a much narrower distribution curve in the general population than the latter. I have no data whatsoever to back that up, but I base it on my own experience in teaching academically gifted high school students. I have encountered many students who have no problem with difficult concepts in, say, biology but who consider advanced mathematics to be beyond their grasp. I find that the attitude is often based on the assumption that mathematical ability is like some kind of Magneto-like mutant superpower which you have to be born with.

By they way, I'm sorry, but I just can't bring myself to say 'maths'; I'm pretty sure I would be put away for high treason if I did.

I agree with Brent that one of the 'problems' with trying to learn subjects/skills is pre-conceived ideas - people are told it's difficult so it must be difficult. Then, I know students who are not bad at math/maths/mathematics but do not show aptitude in exams. Anxiety with its biochemical underpinnings gets in the way of a lot of cognitive processes, and early life experience can affect (positively or negatively) the response to many situations ("oh my, it's maths") later in life. I miss the days of the slide-rule(r) - that required hand-eye cordination (but I suppose a calculator does as well)!

Brent,

If you can find it in the USA, Brian Butterworth's The Mathematical Brain gives lots of good studies on numerical aptitude: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mathematical-Br … mp;sr=1-1, which may well be worth further investigation to the source material...