Mathematical Poetry Month?

It is a relatively well-known fact that, in the United States, the month of April is National Poetry Month.  What is far less-known (unfortunately) is that April is also Mathematics Awareness Month.  Intending to capitalize on the overlapping celebrations, science writer Stephen Ornes proposes that April should become Mathematical Poetry Month.  His compelling argument can be read here:  April Should Be Mathematical Poetry Month.

Should we start a petition????

Why don’t people appreciate math?

“It saddens me that educated people don’t even know that my subject exists.” – Paul Halmos

Why is it that so many people have no idea what mathematics is really about?  Why is it that the general public views math as boring and ugly?  Because most people view mathematicians as human calculators, computing gigantic multiplication problems in their heads.  While, in some rare cases, this is certainly true, I have learned from some brilliant mathematicians who couldn’t even master their times tables.

What the general public doesn’t realize is that mathematics is so much more than computation.   It is about discovering patterns and relationships between ideas.  In many cases, there is something beautiful when a mathematical idea makes a clever connection between two concepts, especially when it is unexpected.

Recently, in an OP-ED piece in the New York Times, Manil Suri attempts to explain what mathematics is about and why it is something to appreciate, much in the same way one appreciates art or music.  As he puts it in his piece,  “you can appreciate art without acquiring the ability to paint, or enjoy a symphony without being able to read music.  Math also deserves to be enjoyed for its own sake, without being constantly subjected to the question, ‘When will I use this?'”

Click here to read his article titled “How to Fall in Love with Math.”  You will not be disappointed.

Google honors Euler!

Euler doodle

Kudos to Google!

Today marks the 306th birthday of Leonhard Euler and, thanks to Google, millions of non-math people are being exposed to some of his incredible achievements through this great doodle.

If you are interested in reading more about Euler, here are some great resources:

Happy Birthday, Euler!

Erdős and √2

paul erdos 2

I asked you to tell me at every step if you don’t understand something. You said nothing!

In honor of Paul Erdős’s 100th birthday (March 26), I wanted to share one of my favorite stories involving his attempt to prove the irrationality of the square root of 2 to a non-mathematician.

Now, before we get to the story, a quick mathematical refresher.  Remember that the proof uses the popular technique of “proof by contradiction” or “Reductio ad Absurdum“.  (For example, if you are trying to prove some claim “A” true, first assume instead that “the opposite of A” is true.  Then, show that the new assumption leads to some logical contradiction.  This contradiction means that “the opposite of A” is wrong and “A” must be true after all.  Tricky, isn’t it?)  I love how G.H. Hardy explains it, “it is one of a mathematician’s finest weapons. It is a far finer gambit than any chess gambit: a chess player may offer the sacrifice of a pawn or even a piece, but a mathematician offers the game.”

(Still need a little more of a refresher with the proof?  Click here.  Don’t worry if you’re not a great mathematician – it doesn’t require a lot of math to understand it.  In fact, that’s what makes it so beautiful – or “from the book” as Erdős would say!)

Now, on to the story …

One afternoon, Erdős was visiting with his life-long friend and fellow mathematician Andrew Vazsonyi.  (This is the same friend who many years ago told Erdős that he was thinking of majoring in something other than mathematics.  Erdős responded by saying that if he chose that path, “I’ll hide, and when you enter the gate of the Technical University, I will shoot you!”)  Anyway, Erdős decided to explain the magic of mathematics to Vazsonyi’s non-mathematican wife, Laura, by proving the irrationality of the square root of 2.  Unfortunately for Erdős, things didn’t go according to plan!  As Vazsonyi tells the story:

One day, Erdos got reckless and told Laura, my wife, that he will prove to her the Pythagorean “scandal,” that the square root of 2 is irrational. (According to legend, the disciple of Pythagoras, who revealed the secret to laymen, was put to death.) He started with an almost blank sheet and started the proof .  “Laura, if you do not understand a step, let me know, so I will clarify the proof,” he said. Let us assume that the square root of 2 is rational, that is it equals a/b, where a and b are whole numbers. “OK?,” Laura agreed. Then he went down, step-by-step and reached a contradiction. “See, the assumption is wrong, the square root of 2 cannot be rational.

But Laura did not like the proof. Erdos got annoyed. “I asked you to tell me at every step if you don’t understand something. You said nothing.”

“Why didn’t you tell me at the beginning that this is all wrong?” said Laura. Erdos flipped his top.

I recalled that when Albert Einstein gave one of his last talks, at the end they unscrewed the black board and sent it to the Smithsonian. So I asked Erdos to certify the document, so I could keep it for history. He signed his name and p g o m a. d, signifying Poor Great Old Man Archeological Discovery. At age 70 he started to use LD for Legally Dead, and at 75 CD for Count Dead, for reasons unknown to me. 

Here is the actual “document” from that day:


Beautiful, isn’t it.  Happy 100th, Paul!  Thanks for all the great memories – and, of course, mathematics!

If you are looking to read a little more about Erdős, you can read any of these:

Here are the sources for this post::

In honor of Pi Day … the sounds of Pi revisited

Ever wonder what Pi would sound like if it were played on musical instruments?  Well, here it is … the musical interpretation of Pi to 31 decimal places or 3.1415926535897932384626433832795.  I always knew that mathematics was visually beautiful, but I never imaged how beautiful it could sound.  Just breathtaking!  (Thanks to the musician Michael John Blake for taking the time to create it and to my colleague for finding the link for me.)

Click here to enjoy:

I wonder what the number e would sound like?