Decoding Geeky T-Shirts, Episode 1

Decoding Geeky T-Shirts, episode 1

We’ve all seen them. Mathy t-shirts, mugs and social media graphics that offer a fun phrase for those who can decode the message. But have these ever made you feel a little, well, not so mathy? Me too. So let’s unlock the mysteries of these inside jokes.

I’ve gathered a few of the most common t-shirts featuring math symbols. One by one, I’ll interpret them for you. Of course if you have any ideas to share, feel free. And if you disagree with my analysis, by all means, let me know!

Here’s to feeling much smarter.

Math is fun!

We’ll start with a doozy and break it down bit by bit.

Math is fun

M = M     One of the shortcuts that these t-shirts take is simply inserting letters as variables. Or you could make an argument that the M in this example stands for mass.

PT solved for aThis one took me a few moments to figure out. It’s based on the Pythagorean Theorem — solving for a. Here’s a quick rundown:

solving PT

Ideal Gas LawThis is the Ideal Gas Law, which I know nothing about. But there’s some algebra to get from the law itself to this representation.


HH  Seems to me that this is simply the variable H, which could stand for just about anything. (If you have another suggestion, let me know in the comments section.)

imaginary numberI love this one! You may remember that you cannot take the square root of a negative number. And then you may remember that there is a very special number for the square root of -1. That number is the imaginary number — or i. It’s crazy to think that we can have imaginary numbers, but there you have it. It was important enough to create a whole new system of numbers so that we could deal with the square root of -1. (And yet, we still can’t divide by zero!)

SummationIf you were a Greek during college or remember a little bit of your Algebra II class, you’ll remember that this symbol is the Greek letter sigma. It’s used to denote summations — not the legal kind; the math kind. When you want to find the sum of a set of numbers, you can indicate it by using the letter sigma.

fun2The last clue is a little bit of a fudge, I think. First the f and parentheses. In math-speak this represents a function, and you probably remember seeing it written like this: f(x). In this form, it means a function in terms of x. But — and here comes the not-so-accurate part, in my opinion — u raised to the nth power is not something you would see in function notation. And u raised to the nth power doesn’t really translate to -un.

And that’s how you get “math is fun” from all of those symbols. Not too bad, eh? Next time, we’ll have some pie!

Adam the Solar Energy Meteorologist


This week I had the privilege of interviewing Adam Kankiewicz who has been a solar energy meteorologist for 16 years!  Some occupations use math more than others, and meteorology is one of those that relies heavily up on it.  Not only does Adam know his math skills but also seems to enjoy it.  Let’s learn more about what he does…

Can you explain what you do for a living?

I work with numerical weather prediction models and satellite data to estimate the energy output of PV (photovoltaic) solar systems. These estimates are used to plan projects ranging in size from home rooftop panels to large plants that cover several square miles. I also develop forecasts used by existing solar plants to predict energy production.

When do you use basic math in your job?

I use statistics when estimating long-term solar energy output. I analyze 15+ years of solar energy data to calculate an average year’s energy output based on the statistical mean. We also factor in year-to-year variability using more advanced statistical methods, such as correlation.

We use simple addition to calculate an annual sum of energy produced. The “annual sum” is a common way to report solar energy output.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why or why not?

Yes, we use sophisticated computer algorithms to make our calculations. We also use Excel sheets when computing annual sums. Because we make hundreds of calculations a year, it wouldn’t be practical to work by hand. Also, using computers significantly reduces the margin for human error. This doesn’t mean we just push a button and get a finished result. We physically review all data and results for consistency and to make sure they’re within expected range. We also write reports interpreting the numerical results.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

I couldn’t imagine doing my job without math. My job is very math-intensive and wouldn’t exist without math. Meteorology, in general, relies heavily on math.

How comfortable with math do you feel? Does this math feel different to you?

I feel very comfortable with all aspects of math and especially enjoy applied math (as opposed to theoretical). I look forward to the daily challenge of working with solar energy data.

What kind of math did you take in high school? Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?

I took algebra, statistics, geometry, and trigonometry. Yes, I liked all my math classes and felt math was my best area.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pick up using the skills you learned in school?

I did not have to learn new skills to do the math I use at work. My college math classes were intense and were enough preparation for the math aspects of my job.

Anything else you want to mention?

Thank you for interviewing me!

Interested in learning more?  Adam has written a blog post for SolarToday magazine.  You can find that here. And you can also see maps of monthly PV energy generation here. I don’t know about you, but I really enjoy learning more about these not-so-traditional professions.

Photo Credit: Lauren Manning via Compfight cc