When Log Tables aren’t Log Tables

Every now and then – actually more frequently than that – I reveal myself in Ireland as an ignorant foreigner. The other day some students were going through a past examination paper (from 2014) and I was surprised to see that the front cover (above) mentioned  `log tables’.

Now I’m old enough to remember using tables of logarithms (and other mathematical tables  of such things as square roots and trigonometric functions, in the form of lists of numbers) extensively at school. These were provided in this book of four-figure tables (which can now buy for 1p on Amazon, plus p&p).

As a historical note I’ll point out that I was in the first year at my school that progressed to calculators rather than slide rules (in the third year) so I was never taught how to use the former. My set of four-figure tables which was so heavily used that it was falling to bits anyway, never got much use after that and I threw it out when I went to university despite the fact that I’m a notorious hoarder.

Anyway, assuming that the mention of `log tables’ was a relic of many years past, I said to the group of students going through the old examination paper that it seemed somewhat anachronistic. I was promptly corrected, and told that `log tables’ are in regular use in schools and colleges throughout Ireland, but that the term is a shorthand for a booklet containing a general collection of mathematical formulae, scientific data and other bits of stuff that might come in useful to students; for an example appropriate to the Irish Leaving Certificate, see here. One thing that they don’t contain is a table of logarithms…

Students in Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University are also given a formula booklet for use during examinations. I don’t remember having access to such a thing as an undergraduate, but I don’t object to it. It seems to me that an examination shouldn’t be a memory test, and giving students the basic formulae as a starting point if anything allows the examiner to concentrate on testing what matters much more, i.e. the ability to formulate and solve a problem. The greatest challenge of science education at University level is, in my opinion, convincing students that their brain is much more than a memory device…

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6 Responses to “When Log Tables aren’t Log Tables”

  1. “I don’t remember having access to such a thing as an undergraduate, but I don’t object to it. It seems to me that an examination shouldn’t be a memory test, and giving students the basic formulae as a starting point if anything allows the examiner to concentrate on testing what matters much more, i.e. the ability to formulate and solve a problem.”

    I once had a professor (who looked incredibly like James Clerk Maxwell) who allowed us to use one sheet of A4 in the exam. We could put what we wanted on it. Actually, figuring out what to put on it probably taught people a lot; many produced a good sheet but hardly needed it.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    It means: Tables made of logs are available for those who find that the cheap desks are too wobbly for them to write upon.

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t think I can remember an examination in which I didn’t have to stick some paper or something under one of the legs of the crappy desk to stop it wobbling.

      Perhaps there’s some kind of law that says all desks used in examinations must be wobbly.

  3. Opinionated Moron Says:

    If maths is taught using softwares such as Mathematica/python
    and more of numerical analysis and statistical analysis is included
    in the coursework from the very beginning then it will be helpful to all.
    This can be similar to lab
    classes in physics/chemistry/biology. Most schools still
    teach maths using old style problem solving. Real life problems
    require skills that are mostly numerical and statistical.

  4. Francis Keenan Says:

    We had a book of log tables at school in the early 1970’s. Four decimal places like Peter’s one.

    Our (Christian brother) maths teacher made us memorise the logs of integers from 2 to 9.

    I got my first calculator in 1975 – it did logs but only natural ones, so you had to convert to log. It also didn’t have square roots so you had to convert the number to log, divide by 2 and then work out the antilog. And it worked on reverse Polish notation which was a pain.

    Ah, the good old days….

    • telescoper Says:

      My prized possession at school was a Hewlett Packard HP32E. The main advantage of Reverse Polish Notation was that nobody else in the class ever asked me to borrow my calculator.

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