Monday, February 1, 2010

Math As Story

Once upon a time, math came packaged in textbooks, and most people had never (ever) even seen a math story. Unless you count things like: "The westbound train leaves at 1pm going 50 miles per hour and the eastbound train leaves at 2pm going 60 miles per hour. If they're 300 miles apart, when will they crash?" (Except the textbook would have said 'meet', leaving out the tiny bit of drama I couldn't help adding.)

I love stories, and I love how much they can add to the appeal of math. History is one storytelling genre that adds a lot of drama to math. Why do we need calculus? Seems to me every calc course should start with enough history for students to see the story unfolding. Where did that crazy number i come from? What's up with geometry proofs? (I still don't know enough to tell these stories properly. It's one of the things I'm doing during my sabbatical year.) Biographies of mathematicians are also a great way to ground all the headiness of math in the details of a life. (My review of The Man Who Knew Infinity, about Ramanujan, is here.)

If you follow this blog, you've seen some of my storytelling attempts (Eight Fingers, Crash and Count). They pale in comparison to some of the literary delights below. Today was a blockbuster day for storytime in the math blogosphere.

Glenn is posting an ongoing adventure story about a place called Verdania, at his blog, Off the Hypotenuse. Each chapter ends with a math puzzle. In the current chapter (Chapter 10), the main characters, who were shipwrecked, are leaving the children's village, and heading to the adults' village. At the end, we're asked to figure out the lengths of 3 paths the characters could travel to get from Sentry Point 1 to Adult Village. If you want to start at the beginning, he's made a new blog with just this story.

But don't leave Off the Hypotenuse behind; there's lots of other great posts there. I am delighted over and over as I try to catch up on all his older posts. The strange thing is, I can't figure out who to thank for pointing me there. I just could not retrace my steps successfully the day I found it.

Glenn linked today to another new delight: Number Gossip, hosted by Tanya Khovanova. It's not exactly stories, but it's in the same spirit, and fun.

Then Jason Dyer, at Number Warrior, pointed to a gory delight over at Emily Short's blog. Word problems with a decidedly 'unfortunate events' twist.

Then there's the pirate story, over at The Math Factor.

Dave Richeson, at Division by Zero, pointed to a great series starting up in the NY Times, written by Steven Strogatz, on:
... the elements of mathematics, from pre-school to grad school, for anyone out there who’d like to have a second chance at the subject — but this time from an adult perspective. It’s not intended to be remedial. The goal is to give you a better feeling for what math is all about and why it’s so enthralling to those who get it.
It starts with a story about penguins in a hotel, ordering fish, fish, fish ... fish. Check it out!

It made me chuckle to see Richeson mentioning Strogatz. I just finished reading Steven Strogatz's lovely new book, The Calculus of Friendship, after hearing him give a talk about it at the Joint Mathematics Meeting a few weeks ago, and I've just started reading Dave Richeson's exciting new book, Euler's Gem.

One last link, not quite a story: Mike Croucher, at Walking Randomly, posted this great piece on the Math Carnivals. (Sorry I neglected to link to the last Math Teachers at Play, over at Math Hombre. It's lovely, and I'm still working on getting through all the links.)

The math blogosphere is exploding with stories today. Yeay!


  1. I'm hosting a contest asking educators to pitch a children's book idea. The prize is a six-month premium membership to the literature site I hope that some of this story-writing energy will transfer over to the contest!

  2. I'd rather see stories shared on the free portions of the internet, myself. But maybe some of the folks reading here will have an interest...

  3. I guess I was unclear: story submissions will be available freely online, and there's no restrictions on publishing them elsewhere. It's also a chance to win free access to a site with a huge library of children's books as well. I'm just excited at the prospect of lots of good math story ideas being shared in one place!

    I love these elaborate math problems/stories that you shared. I hope that someone will soon develop a series modeled after those novels that weave SAT vocabulary into the context of the story.

  4. Hi Sue, I hope you enjoy my book! Sorry to have missed the chance to meet you in person at the JMM. I just read on 360 that you met Ξ (<-- should be Xi). Cool. Small world.

    I actually ran into Steven Strogatz at an MAA event at the JMM. I had no reason to think he knew who I was, but he mentioned that he'd read and enjoyed my book and my blog (double whoa!). THAT was a nice surprise!

  5. Hi Dave, I was actually reading your book while I was at the dentist today. I had to borrow a piece of scrap paper so I could draw those corners coming off the cube, and think about it. It's amazing that no one saw that relationship until Euler.


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