‘Siderodromophobia’ and Other Word Problem Woes

I was recently on a 45-minute Delta Airlines flight from Salt Lake City to Idaho Falls. I had finished my book and decided to do the puzzles in the back of Delta’s Sky Magazine. The Sudoku puzzle was just too tiny to mess with. The second puzzle was a word problem:

Solve it before we land!

Solve it before we land!

Yes, surely I can solve it before we land.

I’ve always prided myself, that if I spend enough time with a word problem, break it down, tease out the relevant information, simplify the logic into equations, then I can solve it.

So let me see here…. Uh, his age plus her age equals 91. Okay. Read the problem again. “He’s twice as old as she was when he was as old as she is now.” Huh? “He’s twice as old as she was when he was as old as she is now.” I feel my heart now, beating against my chest. Anxiety? From trains. Remember? Those word problems with trains students try to solve in high school?

Example: Two trains are driving toward one another. The first train leaves Town A at 5am traveling at 60 miles per hour. The second train leaves Town B at 7am traveling at 70 miles per hour. The distance between Town A and Town B is 455 miles. What is the EXACT time the two trains collide head on?

What? They collide? I don’t know! That’s awful. Hope they aren’t passenger trains! OMG! Could exposure to one too many of these train word problems bring on siderodromophobia? Yes, there does exist in humans a fear of trains (siderodromophobia), the single biggest cause of which might be Algebraic word problems.

Here, a similar word problem, involving trains, with a bit of extraneous information, you know, for extra brain exertion:

Three girls shopping for prom dresses board a train and head to the next bigger city 200 miles away where they have a mall second in size to the Mall of America. This first train is going 60 miles per hour. A second train, carrying eight mothers with screaming infants headed to the same mall, leaves the same station 30 minutes later on a parallel track, going 75 miles per hour. How long does it take the second train to catch up to the first train?

Whew. After telepathically signaling to the girls buying prom dresses that the trip really isn’t worth it, you breathe a sigh of relief that at least the two trains are on parallel tracks. Then you wonder how much room in the aisles the diaper bags and strollers are occupying on train # 2, how long before the babies fill their diapers, and whether the passengers on train 2 have thought to bring ear and nose plugs. I dunno. How mathematical is your brain?

Back to the word problem of the day, on my Delta flight. I have 20 minutes to solve it. “His age plus her age equals 91.” x + y = 91. “He is now twice as old as she was when he was as old as she is now.” Say that again? “He is now twice as old as she was when he was as old as she is now.” Huh? Say it out loud. Say it in simpler terms. How? My brain just won’t make any sense of it whatsoever. For those of you who just love this problem, solved it, and you eat this stuff up, here is a link where you will find three more word problems – involving trains and same direction travel, round trip travel and opposite direction travel.

One last practice strategy for solving word problems is to look at the answer and work backwards. Doesn’t work in this case, as far as I can tell, but here – you can have at it:

The answer is: ‘He is 52 and she is 39.’

Yeah, right. Prove it? Is it true, or did those ‘trick’s on you, passenger!’ Sky Magazine puzzle makers just pull those numbers out of a hat?

I don’t know. The plane landed. Safely. Guess that puts things in perspective. Thank you Delta Airlines. I do wish those Sudoku’s in the back of your Sky Magazine were 5 times bigger and, excuse me, but, is that word problem really solvable through any method except trial and error? Is that answer you gave even correct?

In Idaho Falls we do have an airport, but the nearest Amtrak train depot is in Twin Falls, 138 miles away. At least I can rest assured I won’t be involved in any head on train collisions anytime soon.

Please, Delta Airlines, don’t be making up word problems for your Sky Magazine involving same direction travel, round trip travel, and opposite direction travel with airplanes. (Ever heard of ‘aviatophobia’ or fear of flying?)

P.S My husband, David, (a physicist) just announced that he solved the Delta Airlines word problem. What a kill-joy. I guess I’ll have to share his solution now in another blog.

So, never mind. Think I’ll go buy a prom dress or something …

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