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Getting kids interested in math careers may require a hero.

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Back when I was a high school math geek, our math team would go to meets that occasionally had tables set up to encourage us to pursue various careers that would make use of our mad math skillz. The one such profession where the level of encouragement far outstripped our teenaged interest was the actuarial field. Indeed, more than the objective boringness of the field (to the extent that we had enough information to evaluate that) it may have been the vehement protests of how not-boring actuarial work and actuaries are (really!) that persuaded us that actuarial work was probably pretty boring.

Recently, I think I have hit upon something that might help actuaries turn this perception around. They need a superhero.

Seriously, if any comic book superhero of note had been an actuary as his cover job, actuarial work would have gotten an automatic boost in the estimation of teen geeks. Journalism? Cool, because that was Superman’s day job. Millionaire-industrialist-playboy-philanthropist? Definitely an acceptable career path, since that was Batman’s day job. Librarian? Cool not just because of the access to all those books and periodicals, but also because it was Batgirl’s day job. High school student? Not cool, exactly, but more tolerable on account of being Spiderman’s day job.

Having a superhero who alternated nights of crime-fighting with days assessing risk would raise the esteem of actuarial science among high school mathletes.

There are details that would need to be worked out, of course.

The name for this superhero? Let’s pencil in The Numerator. (“He always comes out on top!”)

His origin story? Probably it would involve looking up from his calculations and crying, “Egad! Crime does pay!” After which, of course, he would dedicate himself to fighting that crime (else we’re looking at the origin story of a supervillain).*

My guess is that The Numerator is going to be one of those superheros that relies on cool gadgets and knowledge rather than on actual superhuman strength or powers — more like Batman than Spiderman. (Otherwise, we’re looking at him getting his fingers caught in a radioactive adding machine, thereby ending up with the power to shoot calculator tape from his fingers, which … I don’t think so.) His utility belt probably includes actuarial tables and a slide-rule. But maybe he’s also a synesthete who can look at the numbers and smell evil.

His nemeses? Undoubtedly they will be legion — corporate crooks, purveyors of Ponzi schemes — but one of them might be Pay-Day Shark. This supervillain, tricked out in a sharkskin suit, will be happy to give you an advance on your paycheck as long as you’re ready to pay interest and fees that end up being about 400% of the amount you’re borrowing. When you can’t pay, he’ll threaten you will his tank of hungry and ill-tempered (but not laser-sight-equipped) sharks. He may even let his pretties eat one of your limbs. But Pay-Day Shark wants to help you — he’ll loan you a prosthetic limb, for a reasonable fee.

Who can save you from his clutches? The Numerator!

DC Comics? Marvel Comics? American Academy of Actuaries? I think we have something here. Let’s talk.

*It possible that linking actuarial science with supervillainy might also make young geeks hold it in higher esteem. Maybe someone should perform a risk-benefit analysis of this … but who?

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. cbjones1943 8:49 pm 03/24/2012

    1. IMO, this idea is a terrific one.
    2. If, as evidence suggests, math-based & tech-based scientific careers are more flexible than other types of research science careers (e.g., benchwork & other experimental projects, fieldwork) for females wishing a career + children +, perhaps, other “hands-on” caretaker responsibilities (e.g., caring for elderly relatives), effective, inexpensive, methods must be identified to counter decisions by most girls to forego math training.
    3. Let’s convince NSF to fund professionally-based, math-heroine comic-books for girls from, say, 3rd grade!


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  2. 2. b sci 5:04 pm 03/27/2012

    Image if someone made a show about an insurance claims investigator in the style of noir detective dramas as he tallies his expenses along the way. Perhaps give the character some over-the-top name like Johnny Dollar. Not quite an actuary, but surprisingly close.

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