Math in the real world

I subscribe to a fun video series on YouTube called “minute physics” — as the title implies, it typically sends me short videos that explain some sort of concept in physics.

Today, I got this, via email:



The incongruity between the source — minute physics — and the topic — unrest in Venezuela — intrigued me.  So I decided to start my morning by watching this six-minute video that explains daily life in Venezuela.  The video describes an interaction between a US physics professor and his friend in Venezuela named Ever Salazar.  Ever lives in Ciudad Guyana and teaches at a university there.  He also works as an illustrator for Minute Earth, which I’m guessing is affiliated with Minute Physics.


The whole video is well done and is worth watching.  It’s mostly real clips from Venezuela — not stick figures.  It does a nice job of getting people up to speed with the protests that are raging throughout Venezuela.

For this blog post, I want to focus on a picture from the video that describes how cheap gas is in Venezuela.  This picture was so absurd that it made me think “that can’t be right!”

venezuela gas


I mean, if gas in Venezuela really costs just six cents for 10 gallons, that means it’s less than half a cent for a gallon.  That seems crazy.

So I did what we all want our students to do in today’s world — I checked it out for myself by doing some research.  I searched for “gas prices in Venezuela” and I found this article, Venezuela May Meet New Reality, and New Price, at the Pump, from the January 2014 New York Times. The article describes how gas prices in Venezuela are hugely subsidized by the Venezuelan government.

It opens by noting that it may be time to raise gas prices in Venezuela:

Venezuela has the world’s cheapest gasoline, about 6 cents a gallon, a price so low that drivers often fill their tanks for less than a dollar and tip the gas station attendant more than the cost of the fuel pumped into their cars.

With their country holding the world’s largest estimated oil reserves, many Venezuelans consider cheap gas almost an inalienable right of citizenship — a coveted remnant of the boom days when Venezuela saw itself riding its oil riches to a first world dream of wealth and status.

But the illusion of inexhaustible wealth that every citizen can effortlessly tap into at the nearest gas station may finally crash into hard reality. President Nicolás Maduro has called for what was once unthinkable: It is time, he has said, to raise the price at the pump.

So it’s not 6 cents for 10 gallons — as the video showed — but it is remarkably cheap at 6 cents per gallon.  I just filled my car up for nearly $3.60 per gallon, so that means gas in Venezuela is sixty times cheaper than in Durham, NC.

And that’s applied math in the real world.

But let’s not stop there.  I’m now intrigued by the story of Ever’s life in Venezuela — the cars burning in the streets and the tear gas and the lack of basic food items like food and bread.  I also want to learn more about the city in Venezuela where he lives, Ciudad Guyana — here’s a screen shot from the video:

Ciudad Guyana

Apparently, it’s a city with about a million people and is the sixth largest city, by population, in Venezuela.

I just looked up a list of cities in Venezuela from Wikipedia, and I was struck that the four largest cities in Venezuela — Caracas, Maracaibo, Valencia, and Barquisimeto — were all founded in the 1500s (Ciudad Guyana is a newcomer — it was founded in 1961).

Imagine giving students time to explore whatever aspect of this video interested them most — Venezuela’s economy, its oil industry, its current political situation, its colonial history dating back to the 1500s. They would learn communication skills and research skills at the same time as they expanded their world view.

We could even have students blog about what they learned (they could call their blog some variation of “What I Learned Today”) so their parents and friends could learn along with them.

Postscript — this excerpt from that New York Times article does a nice job of explaining how the gas subsidy in Venezuela might be contributing to the unrest in the country — it benefits the rich more than the poor:

Venezuelans use about 323,000 barrels of gasoline a day, Mr. Ramírez said last year. And despite having enormous oil reserves, Venezuela has imported tens of thousands of barrels of gasoline a day from the United States over the last two years, according to the Energy Information Administration in Washington, because of problems at refineries. So in effect, the Venezuelan government has been paying market prices — which averaged about $2.70 a gallon last year — to import gasoline that it gives away almost for free.

“This is a crazy subsidy,” said Francisco J. Monaldi, a visiting professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government who studies national oil companies in Latin America.

He said the lost income from fuel subsidies was more than what the government spent on education and health care combined.

Despite the socialist orientation of Venezuela’s government, the wealthy and middle class benefit greatly from the fuel subsidy because they are more likely to have a car, while the poor primarily benefit through the effect on mass transportation fares. Two researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School, José Ramón Morales and Douglas Barrios, calculated that the value of the gasoline subsidy for the top 10 percent of households in 2010 was about $3,755 a year, compared with $506 a year for the bottom 10 percent.

About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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