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Sir Issac Newton’s Other Discovery
Most children learn the story of Sir Issac Newton sitting under the apple tree and being hit in the head by a falling apple and how the falling apple inspired him to discover gravity. However, what children are not told is that the same event caused another invention by Newton. Gravity is the force that describes how things are pulled towards the center of the earth. In order to explain the concept of gravity and to make the new concept more useful, Newton invented a whole new branch of mathematics called differential calculus. I have an engineering background and have taken more math courses than the vast majority of the population. Although teaching numeracy to children at an early age can be challenging, the basic concepts behind numeracy are very simple, easy to illustrate, and are vitally important in teaching financial education concepts.
Before the invention of calculus, it was very difficult to make sense of many things in nature, because mathematics was limited to snapshots. Algebra, geometry, and trigonometry only make sense for given data at a certain time. If you wanted to see how things behaved over time, you had to figure out the equation at a bunch of different points and draw the graph to see it. The calculation allowed us to see how things evolve at a given moment. It allowed us to see that if we are in our car and we brake hard, we can predict how far and how long it will take us to stop. This allowed us to see if we are spending money at a given rate and earning money at a lower rate, how long will it take until we run out of money. These types of measurements were not easy to perform before the invention of calculus.
When it comes to personal finances, each of us makes calculations all the time, even if we don’t realize it. Calculus is used to measure the rate at which something is changing at that instant. Week after week, month after month, we adults are still working through the net income equation to make choices. Net income is simply total income minus expenses. Much of financial education is aimed at increasing the rate of change in the net income equation. When we work to be more frugal, we reduce expenses. When we invest, take on additional jobs, or get pay raises, we increase gross income. Both of these increase the rate at which the net income equation changes.
By using the net income equation, we can make predictions about our financial situation in the future. When can I afford this new item? Will I have enough money to buy groceries or go to the movies? Will I be able to pay my tuition bill? Will there be enough left over to continue paying for other things? These are the questions that can reasonably be answered with the help of calculation.
I find it a pity that school teachers often recount the first discovery Newton made that day, but so often neglect to mention it. Children should know the concept behind the calculation and the rate of change at an early age. This will help them throughout life. If you think about it, you’ll find plenty of ways to illustrate these concepts for your kids in the car, on the playground, and at home.
This kind of learning is important because gravity tells us that on earth, unless we do something, things will fall. This applies to checking account balances as well as apples.
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