Check Your Arithmetic

"Measure twice; cut once," is the carpenter's adage.

Now carpenters have been around for several millennia, so we can say that rocket scientists are thinking like carpenters when they check their calculations.

When Albert Einstein finally published his general theory of relativity in 1915, he was at his wit's end because the world's greatest mathematician, David Hilbert, was in a race with him to find the correct theory. Einstein had spent ten years "going down blind alleys" trying to formulate his theory of gravitation. Each year he published a new version of the theory—and the next year he would recant and propose a new one. He struggled with the monstrous mathematical machinery of tensor calculus (mathematics so recondite that even Isaac Asimov—the "Great Explainer" and author of nearly five hundred books—admitted he could not master it).

Einstein wrote hundreds of pages of calculations in tensor calculus. He was twenty-six years old when he started his quest. When he finished the theory at the age of thirty-six, his health was shot and his hair was gray. The effort nearly killed him.

But if he had been more careful, Einstein would have saved himself a lot of pain. When he reviewed the calculations he had done in 1913, he found he had made an error, which when corrected gave him the final theory! He had had the right solution in his notes for two years and didn't realize it.

So some of the greatest geniuses make costly mistakes. Keep this lesson in mind when you have to balance your checkbook or calculate your income tax. You are not the only one who finds such calculations tedious and frustrating. Everyone makes mistakes.

But the checkbook must be balanced, the income tax must be paid, and errors will cost you. If you make a mistake in your checkbook, you could end up overdrawing your account, getting fined by your bank, and losing your credit. A mistake with the Internal Revenue Service could cost you significant penalties, including the possibility of criminal charges.

Dire consequences undoubtedly add to the fear and frustration of checking your arithmetic. Perhaps it will help if we think of Albert Einstein's plight. The great man who said, "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is—that it is comprehensible," found the instructions he received from the IRS impossible to follow!

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