Where's the Algebra?
I am told that algebra is everywhere – it’s in my iPod, beneath the spreadsheet that calculates my car payments, in every corner of my building. This idea freaks me out because I just can’t see it. I sent out a query on my blog last week asking, Who among us in the real world uses algebra? Can you explain how it works?
The first response came from an unlikely place, given my math-averse family: my brother.
Meet Brad Kagel.
He’s a rigger -- one of those crazy people who crawl up steel beams 100 feet above arenas and hangs lighting systems, sound systems and scenery for rock concerts and other shows. For years, he toured with Broadway plays and other acts. Now he owns an entertainment rigging company, based in Florida, and stages much safer corporate events and conventions.
All along, he’s had a secret life of algebra.
In the past, he said, the primary qualification for a job as an entertainment rigger was not an advanced degree in mathematics, but rather no fear of heights. These days, math skills -- as well as guts -- are important. For a job with lethal consequences, it’s not good enough to eyeball what type of truss should be used to hang a 3,000-pound lighting system, my brother says.
Algebraic formulas go into figuring out what kind of truss should be used, what type and length of wire are needed to attach lights to structural steel. Algebra is also key to keeping workers safe: It's used to calculate the shock loads that would occur if a rigger fell and were stopped in mid-air by their lanyard and harnass.
There’s typically at least one person on any given job that can do these calculations. But my brother wants all his employees to do the math, and he has been holding tutorials to review square roots and translate formulas. The goal is to get them all to pass the algebra-heavy certification exam for riggers.
But he could use some help, perhaps from some people with advanced degrees in mathematics. Here is a list of formulas that riggers are expected to know for certification (Courtesy of the Entertainment Technician Certification Program).
The ones circled in red are frequently used on the job to figure out things like "load distribution," "bridle leg tension" and "leg length." The others are more or less a mystery to Brad and his coworkers. As my brother prepares his riggers for the test, he’s wondering if any mathematicians or physicists out there can help translate.
When might these formulas come in handy? How could they be applied to help hang a lighting system?
And don't forget to send more stories from the work place as we keep looking for algebra in unexpected places...
UPDATE: My apologies. I had planned to run a list of diagrams that riggers use that would help put these formulas in context. In the end I could not get permission from the author of the book in which they are published. Sorry to throw this up there without more clues. I'm going to send this post to a few entertainment riggers to see if we can piece together how these formulas are used.
Thanks to reader feedback for pointing out the oversight!
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