Missed a Minus Sign

I started as a student at Michigan Tech in 1976, finished being a student in 1982, went to work for them in 1984, and retired 22 years later. That was a lot of time spent around campus. Mid-winter MTU has a unique tradition: Winter Carnival. Some weeks before the event, student groups are given a theme, and they plan and execute ice sculptures, some small and some epic. I never participated in the making of an ice sculpture, and rarely walked around to see them, unless I happened to be on my way somewhere across campus. But one ice sculpture still sticks in my mind after all these years.

There were two categories of sculptures; the ones I described above, and the “one nighters,” where the participants couldn’t start their sculptures until a certain time in the afternoon the day before winter carnival officially started, and had to be done the next morning. The one I remember best was a one nighter.

There were only 3 objects in this sculpture. One a pharaoh on his throne, one an engineer prostrate before the pharaoh, and one a pyramid. The pyramid caught your eye first, because it had its point in the ground. The pyramid was upside down. The caption on the piece had the engineer say, “Forgive me oh pharaoh, I missed a minus sign.”

This great memory came flooding back the other morning. I still try to walk twice each day, which is a habit I’ve held onto since our dog Franco died in September of 2019. Our dogs loved and deserved their morning and late afternoon walks, and I benefited from them too. The main difference now is there is no dog, just me.

I typically just throw on my Muck Boots ™, Carhartt ™ jacket, hat and mittens, and do my morning mile in my pajama bottoms. This works well for me for much of the winter, but I’ve found if the temperature is much below the 20s F, that my thighs get cold enough that they start stinging. Those pajama bottoms just don’t hold in much heat. So before I suit up for my morning walk in the winter, I check the temperature.

In the old days, this was done by looking at a glass tube filled with mercury. Our modern thermometer is a digital one with a transmitter outside that feeds the temperature in to the device. When the temperature is in the single digits below zero, the minus sign is large and obvious; right next to the digit. But when the temperature gets into the double digits below zero, the minus sign changes to a less obvious part of the screen.

So once I had the wood stove fires going the other morning, I looked over at the screen to see the temperature. It was 12. I concluded it was cold enough for me to break out the Sorels, Canada Goose Jacket, but not cold enough for long underwear and wool pants. Pajama bottoms were good enough for me! Head, hands, and torso were all adequately warm on the walk, but the pajama pants were surely not working as well as they should have. I should have been fine at 12 degrees, unless of course, like the poor engineer in the ice sculpture, I missed a minus sign.

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