From Spreadsheets to Saving Mankind

I have a thing for spreadsheets and have for decades. In a recent backup, I found 10 Excel spreadsheets in my Math History folder. The largest spreadsheet holds the entire history of Mathematics and is 998 KB. Yeah, it is big. It starts from 40,000 BC with the first artifact found in Africa and leads to the implementation of Common Core. It includes Babylon’s first calendar from 4,700 BC, Heron’s practical geometry in 150 A.D., and the amazing preservation of Greece’s math books by Islam’s greatest mathematicians. I am Gabrielle, and I am a spreadsheet addict. (This is where you say, “Hello Gabrielle.”)

Before I owned a personal computer, I hand made my own spreadsheets. I am very emotionally attached to these spreadsheets. My favorite handmade spreadsheet that I created is the History of Art, where I tracked all of the art artifacts I have read about, from the Upper Paleolithic era in 35,000 BC to Roy Lichtenstein’s work in the 1990s.

One of my many hand drawn spreadsheets on the history of art

Moreover, though I often attribute my spreadsheets to my fascination with art and science history, it goes beyond chronological notations. I have also saved my banking spreadsheets from 1992. I love to go back and see how I tracked my college finances, month-to-month, and survived on Spaghetti-os and popcorn.

My fascination with spreadsheets has been with me most of my life. I will never forget the rush I got the first time I worked with VisiCalc, the forerunner to SuperCalc and Lotus 1-2-3. The process of writing, drawing, and taping huge spreadsheets together came to a long, drawn-out, emotional separation the day I met VisiCalc.



VisiCalc was the very first computer spreadsheet program; it was introduced by Apple II. VisiCalc was a game changer on many levels because Apple implemented it on bug compatible platforms. In other words, Apple began executing backward compatibility, which allowed for interoperability with older versions each time VisiCalc had an update. This changed the future of computing on many levels. Here is a subtle implication: Lotus Development Corporation duplicated this process to create the mind-blowing Lotus 1-2-3. This theft did not go unnoticed. On April 13, 1987, SAPC, Inc. sued Lotus for stealing VisiCalc’s “look and feel.” But, as we have learned from the Edison theft of Tesla’s work, sometimes theft leads to better progress. (No offense to the Tesla purists!) The duplication of VisiCalc was a game changer to the future of data development.

By Odacir Blanco [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I began working with Lotus 1-2-3 in the 80s and genuinely fell in love with this application so much that I completely memorized the Functions and Macros Guide. At one point, in my data preservation processes, I was known around the cubicles as the Lotus Queen. I seriously earned that title! No joke! This served me no purpose once Excel hit the scene.

Nevertheless, Excel. Yeah, I know it’s a fragment. But, Excel! Pull down menus! Click capability! The day I met Excel, my glasses fogged up. Granted it was a humid day. But still! It was Monday, November 30, 1987. I was working nights in the recording studios and started my day job at an accounting firm in Beverly Hills. Because I am a fast learner, I immediately picked it up. I didn’t want to go to the studio that night. I wanted to stay at the firm and keep working on Excel.

We all know Excel. The last person on the planet who never knew Excel was my old boss, who, in 1996, conveniently pandered his son’s Excel spreadsheet homework off on me because he couldn’t figure out how to sort alphabetically. I hope I got an A on that assignment.

Excel was my best friend during my second Bachelor’s degree. I was able to set up tremendously large spreadsheets that provided data needed for Linear Algebra and Differential Equations. For probability, statistics, and game theory, Excel served as an extension of my brain.

By Pacomartin (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With Modelling, I was able to determine the slow rate of Denver’s housing development compared to the city’s accelerated population growth. Between the limited housing and more traffic, it looks as though the city has a challenge their hands. That said, though Excel cannot move mountains, it can help Denver determine how much mountain they will need to move into to maintain its desperately needed housing development problem.

My most recent love with Excel comes with the beauty of creating fractals. If you Google fractals and Excel, you will find numerous (pun intended) Web sites that will open your eyes to a whole new Excel world and the beauty of fractals. Mandelbrot sets are becoming commonplace in Excel, as individuals and mathematicians set out to create beautiful works of fractal art. By plotting a set of complex numbers, one can create a gorgeous fractal boundary. The cool thing about this is that one can take a complex set that is found in the mathematics of nature, finance, trajectories, etc., and create visual art in Excel.

By Yami89 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

If you are interested in creating fractals in Excel, one of my favorite sites is FractalForums.com, where likeminded nerds can exchange fractal building tips. Daniel Brian Scott has a blog (that I love to read!) called The Drafting Table. He provides an excellent process for creating a Mandelbrot set in Excel, which you can find here: http://danbscott.ghost.io/mandelbrot-set-in-excel/At http://slicker.me/fractals/excel.htm you can find only 16 lines of Visual Basic code that can get you up and running as well!

For data nerds, like myself, the future of spreadsheets and the future of Excel can be intoxicating as it becomes more collaborative and immersive. Data can now be pulled from multiple sources, manipulated on the fly, and used in the cloud. Additionally, data sets are getting larger because of the ability to compute these large sets with minimal processing time. The applications are becoming larger and numerous, which means that, like the evolution of VisiCalc to Excel, we will see, as we have in the past, a beautiful evolution of Excel into something bigger, more powerful, more engaging, and more responsive. It goes beyond just tracking numbers, to seeing and understanding mathematics in nature, to evaluating social economics, to understanding the tremendous speed at which areas of our world are growing and seeing the painful stagnation at which areas of our world still suffer. It's not just a simple calculator. It's an application that can provide us tremendous insight. The development of data creation and spreadsheets is vast, ongoing, and exciting. VisiCalc was a simple and wonderful idea. And, as with all amazing inventions, it has evolved to help us better understand ourselves.

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