MAA Focus December 2010/January 2011 : Page 3

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t.""'0$64 | | 3 3 Spreading the Word about Marvelous Mathematics By Ivars Peterson T housands of people, young and old, took advantage of summery days in late October to experience science and math on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. In brilliant sun-light, they strolled from tent to tent, sampling the wares of more than 400 organizations, including MAA, that participated in the USA Science & Engineering Festival. At the MAA booth, visitors could try to solve a Sudoku-like puzzle by arranging 16 plastic pieces (combinations of four colors and four shapes) into a four-by-four square in which no row or column had a repeated color or shape. Th ey could fold a model of a hyperbolic paraboloid from a sheet of origami paper. Or, in the “Are you smarter than an eighth-grader in math?” challenge, they could attempt questions from MAA’s nationwide AMC 8 contest. Visitors could fi nd additional hands-on math activities next door at the Museum of Mathematics or MathCounts exhibits. At the nearby American Mathematical Society booth, they could help geometric sculptor George W. Hart assemble a colorful mathematical structure (a gyroid surface made from equilateral triangles). Th e resulting sculpture is now on display at Towson University. Th e booths were busy all day Saturday and Sunday, as eager children and their parents crowded around for chances to do some math. Th e activities at the MAA booth proved a bit too challenging or time-consuming for many visitors, especially the young children who were particularly keen to fold things or arrange colors and shapes. And we received multiple requests for easier MAA’s booth at the USA Science & Engineering Festival displayed our festival banner declaring “Math Is Everywhere!” Staff, including Steve Dunbar, Laura McHugh, and Rebecca Elmo, and volunteer students were kept busy both days helping eager attendees work on AMC 8 questions, origami hy-perbolic paraboloids, and a sudoku-like puzzle. math questions that, say, fi ft h-graders could answer. We’ll know better for next time. On the other hand, the temporary tattoos, featuring the symbol “pi,” that we handed out were immensely popular, evoking smiles of recognition and delight. Many recipients, including some tots, couldn’t resist reciting at least the fi rst few decimal digits of pi, and a number of people mentioned partici-pation in pi day activities or the baking of pi pies. Festival attendees who stopped by the MAA booth also appre-ciated MAA’s new brochure, “A Field Guide to Math on the Na-tional Mall,” which describes more than a dozen sites that feature some aspect of mathematics. Many enjoyed the chance to look at familiar places and objects in an unfamiliar light as they went off on their self-directed math tours of the mall. Some teachers took copies of the brochure to use in future fi eld trips. Ironically, the Washington Post had chosen that Saturday to publish an op-ed piece by retired mathematics professor G. V. Ram-anathan of the University of Illinois at Chicago, who argued that “math has little relevance to everyday life.” All the mathematics that one needs, he wrote, can be learned in early years without much fuss. “Most adults have no contact with math at work, nor do they curl up with an algebra book for relaxation,” he declared. Such a narrow viewpoint did not go over well with some of the people who stopped by the festival booth. I heard a number of responses, Photos/L. McHugh

Spreading The Word About Marvelous Mathematics

Ivars Peterson

Thousands of people, young and old, took advantage of summery days in late October to experience science and math on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. In brilliant sunlight, they strolled from tent to tent, sampling the wares of more than 400 organizations, including MAA, that participated in the USA Science & Engineering Festival.<br /> <br /> At the MAA booth, visitors could try to solve a Sudoku-like puzzle by arranging 16 plastic pieces (combinations of four colors and four shapes) into a four-by-four square in which no row or column had a repeated color or shape. Th ey could fold a model of a hyperbolic paraboloid from a sheet of origami paper.Or, in the “Are you smarter than an eighth-grader in math?” challenge, they could attempt questions from MAA’s nationwide AMC 8 contest.<br /> <br /> Visitors could fi nd additional hands-on math activities next door at the Museum of Mathematics or MathCounts exhibits. At the nearby American Mathematical Society booth, they could help geometric sculptor George W. Hart assemble a colorful mathematical structure (a gyroid surface made from equilateral triangles). Th e resulting sculpture is now on display at Towson University.<br /> <br /> Th e booths were busy all day Saturday and Sunday, as eager children and their parents crowded around for chances to do some math. Th e activities at the MAA booth proved a bit too challenging or time-consuming for many visitors, especially the young children who were particularly keen to fold things or arrange colors and shapes. And we received multiple requests for easier .<br /> <br /> MAA’s booth at the USA Science & Engineering Festival displayed our festival banner declaring “Math Is Everywhere!” Staff, including Steve Dunbar, Laura McHugh, and Rebecca Elmo, and volunteer students were kept busy both days helping eager attendees work on AMC 8 questions, origami hyperbolic paraboloids, and a sudoku-like puzzle.<br /> <br /> Math questions that, say, fi ft h-graders could answer. We’ll know better for next time.<br /> <br /> On the other hand, the temporary tattoos, featuring the symbol “pi,” that we handed out were immensely popular, evoking smiles of recognition and delight. Many recipients, including some tots, couldn’t resist reciting at least the fi rst few decimal digits of pi, and a number of people mentioned participation in pi day activities or the baking of pi pies.<br /> <br /> Festival attendees who stopped by the MAA booth also appreciated MAA’s new brochure, “A Field Guide to Math on the National Mall,” which describes more than a dozen sites that feature some aspect of mathematics. Many enjoyed the chance to look at familiar places and objects in an unfamiliar light as they went off on their self-directed math tours of the mall. Some teachers took copies of the brochure to use in future fi eld trips.<br /> <br /> Ironically, the Washington Post had chosen that Saturday to publish an op-ed piece by retired mathematics professor G. V. Ramanathan of the University of Illinois at Chicago, who argued that “math has little relevance to everyday life.” All the mathematics that one needs, he wrote, can be learned in early years without much fuss. “Most adults have no contact with math at work, nor do they curl up with an algebra book for relaxation,” he declared.<br /> <br /> Such a narrow viewpoint did not go over well with some of the people who stopped by the festival booth. I heard a number of responses, Nearly all strongly opposed to the sentiment expressed in the op-ed: “Do mathematicians really think that?” they wanted to know. “Don’t we need more scientists and engineers, and they need math, don’t they?” “What about all the ways that math comes up in everyday life?” “Does math always have to be practical?” “Isn’t math worthwhile and enjoyable just for its own sake?”<br /> <br /> Mathematics in Michigan<br /> <br /> Th at mathematics can inform and delight was evident in the enthusiastic response of many people, particularly families, to the math exhibits and activities on the mall. It was also evident a day earlier, when I presented a public lecture to a full house (on a Friday aft ernoon!)At Western Michigan University.<br /> <br /> My illustrated presentation on the hidden math of everyday life ranged from Möbius strips and the history of the recycling symbol to fractals in nature and art.<br /> <br /> Th at evening, aft er the banquet for students newly initiated into the mathematics honor society Pi Mu Epsilon, I spoke about soap bubbles. Each table had a reminder That the physical world can play an important role in advancing mathematics—bottles of soap solution for blowing bubblesStudents, parents, faculty, even administrators got into the act, delighting in the wonderful geometric forms that they could create, then ponder.<br /> <br /> Celebration of mind <br /> <br /> Earlier in the week, on October 21, MAA hosted the Washington edition of “Martin Gardner’s Celebration of Mind” to mark what would have been Gardner’s 96th birthday. Organized with the help of Bill Ritchie of the game company Th inkFun and George Mason University computer scientist Dana Richards, who is writing a biography of Martin Gardner, the event took place at MAA’s Carriage House and brought together people refl ecting Gardner’s exceedingly broad range of interests, including mathematics.<br /> <br /> Sharing and learning represented a signifi cant part of the experience that evening. Michael Gessel of the International Wizard of Oz Club talked about Gardner’s keen interest in L. Frank Baum’s famous book series. Magician Dick Christian noted Gardner’s passion for magic. Kate Jones of Kadon Enterprises displayed two games invented by Gardner that her company manufactures and distributes. Chip Denman of the National Capital Area Skeptics refl ected on Gardner’s many and varied debunking eff orts. Dana Richards provided insights into Gardner’s younger days and his studies of Sherlock Holmes.<br /> <br /> Mathematician Eve Torrence of Randolph-Macon College off ered some intriguing designs for mathematical sculptures, based on the work of George Hart. For my contribution, I demonstrated a marvelous, little-known Möbius-strip cutting trick that Gardner had described to me in a letter about 10 years ago.Taken together, the events of those four exhilarating days in October revealed the power and value of mathematical outreach.<br /> <br /> Th ere are many ways to appreciate mathematics, many reasons to continue learning mathematics, and many links between mathematics and the world in which we live, work, and play.<br /> <br /> Ivars Peterson is MAA director of publications and communications.His blog is http://mathtourist.blogspot.com.<br /> <br /> Additional information about MAA participation in the USA Science & Engineering Festival is available at http://www.maa.org/ festival, and more about Martin Gardner’s Celebration of Mind— including links to videos of the speakers—is at http://maa.org/pubs/ G4G2010.html.<br /> <br /> The fi rst Celebration of Mind at MAA headquarters included magicians, games, a discussion of the Wizard of Oz series, and Möbius-strip tricks.<br /> <br /> <br /> <br /> <br /> <br /> <br /> <br />

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