Norman Knight: Hats off to the math whiz

I am not a complex numbers person. My eyes glaze over when I try to focus on things like the maneuverings of high finance.

Nevertheless, I told myself I should attempt to learn what I can about the recent big problems with big banks here in the United States and abroad. I read a copy of the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal to see if I could puzzle out some details. But it was no use. I gave up and wound up working the crossword puzzle instead.

After the crossword, I flipped through the rest of the features section where I came upon a piece by Eugenia Cheng. She writes a monthly column called “Everyday Math” which is meant for people who don’t really do math. Perfect for me. This particular column, “Why Your Hat Probably Doesn’t Fit,” attempts, using relatively simple terms, to explain the many measurement problems encountered when designing hats to fit on the many shapes and sizes of the human head.

I followed her as she wrote about “spheres” and “ratios” and “circumferences,” but I had to reach back into my cobwebbed closet of junior high math memories when she explained that an ellipse is a “squashed circle” while a spheroid is a “squashed sphere.” At one point I nearly reached for a piece of school notebook paper to start doodling guitars which is how I passed my time in school math classes.

But I stuck with it, and by the end of the article, I admit that I had a reasonable understanding of the math involved, and I now understand the difficulties in mass-producing hats that will fit well on each and every individual’s head. Cheng’s article also gives me a useful, scientific-sounding explanation for my resistance to wearing hats.

At one time in my life, when I was between, say, five and nine—the cowboy dream years—I liked wearing hats. A hat helped me imagine I was riding the range or herding dogies or in the midst of a shootout among the cacti and high desert boulders of Old Greenwood. My mom used to remind me that when I was really young I sometimes would wear a washcloth on my head as my imaginary stetson. But, as I grew older I began to prefer my head hatless. Especially After the British Invasion.

Now, instead of picking off imaginary bad guys wearing my cowboy hat, I was rocking my imaginary guitar (the one I designed in math class) and shaking my long hair hatless on Ed Sullivan. In addition, I also soon learned there were some girls who also appreciated the British Invasion and the styles associated with it, including “Beatle” haircuts. I learned having long hair was mostly good. Unless, that is, you were the school principal. Or my dad. Even so, long hair became another symbol of youthful rebellion.

As the years went on I developed a policy of wearing hats only on an as-needed basis. I would pull a stocking cap over my head during really cold weather. When the sun was glaring in my face I would wear one with a brim. But I didn’t think hats were a particularly good look for me, and I hated the “hat head” look.

A few decades ago, grown men started wearing ball caps. I think I first noticed it when they stopped taking off their hats when they sat down in restaurants. This was kind of disconcerting to me, seemed like bad manners. Also, I think I resisted wearing a cap just because everyone seemed to be wearing them. Maybe another attempt at rebellion.

But recently I have started wearing hats again. Mostly because medical professionals and their examinations advise me that I should. It has to do with the fact that I don’t have long hair anymore. As a matter of fact, I don’t have much hair at all. Thin hair is no protection from the sun. Hats are.

So off I go into the world trying to find a hat that fits me. The math tells me it won’t be easy.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to