Mathematics is a critical part of our everyday lives. It allows people to complete everything from daily tasks, such as managing money and calculating travel time, to solving the most complex of engineering problems. Humankind has been using the truth of mathematics for thousands of years to survive, trade, construct and explain the world around us.
From simple addition and subtraction to calculating maximum load stress on a railway bridge, application of the correct mathematical principles will provide the right answer every time – assuming, of course, no mistakes were made along the way…
We sometimes make simple errors of calculation as we go about our daily business – be it homework, measuring up for new curtains, or figuring out how to up or downscale proportions when a recipe doesn’t match the number of mouths needing to be fed. Cake baking is notorious for not going well when percentages are out of whack!
A non-rising cake or ill-fitting curtain is frustrating and generally the consequence of either failing to apply the correct calculation, or not double-checking the input data. However, when these same ‘simple’ errors are made on large scale and complex projects, the results can be catastrophic.
Let’s look at a couple of examples where the wrong calculation or not checking (and re-checking!) has resulted in costly failures.
Lost in Space
In 1999, NASA lost its $125-million Mars Climate Orbiter because the engineers from the jet propulsion team worked their calculations in imperial measurements and the astronautics team assumed the completed calculations had already been converted to metric. No one checked to ensure the input data was provided in the correct units.
The result? The software controlling the orbiters thrusters was calculating the force required in incorrect units, the spacecraft flew too close to the planet’s atmosphere and burned up.
The maths wasn’t wrong, but without the correct inputs, the mission was doomed from the beginning.
Decimal Points can be Deceptively Heavy
In 2003, Spain launched a $2.7 billion program to build four submarines for their Navy. Having almost completed one of the submarines in 2013, it was discovered that the sub was nearly 100 tonnes too heavy and would not be able to surface again once submerged.
It was reported at the time that in the design stage, a decimal point was placed in the wrong spot during calculations. No one discovered the error until the first submarine was completed, and the other three were already under construction.
The result? The submarines needed a redesign which made them 10 metres longer, which meant they would no longer fit into the naval base docks, necessitating an expansion. Overall, the project costs more the doubled from the original estimates.
Simple mistake, big consequence.
The lesson here?
Whether it’s student homework, baking a cake or sending rockets into space, simple and avoidable errors and oversights will unfortunately produce the wrong answer and deliver unintended consequences. So as long as you check and double check your inputs, integers, decimal points and units, the correctly applied mathematics will give you the right answer every time.
Activities in ORIGO Education’s Think Tanks Measurement & Geometry help students to learn about length & geometric shape while practicing core visual, spatial, reasoning and thinking skills. Students engage in problem situations requiring them to reason mathematically and quantitatively