17 April 2014

Talking with my 13 year old about Algebra & Daniel Tammet's recitation of Pi


Picking up my thirteen year old son from school is always a joy because it's the few minutes in our day when he's most talkative.  On a recent afternoon, he spent ten minutes on our drive home telling me all about his algebra class, how much he loves it, how much he's learning, and basically how curious he is about numbers.  Knowing how much he loves numbers, I was excited to tell him about a book I checked out from the library.  When I told him about it, he eagerly replied "What's the man's name?" When I told him Daniel Tammet was the author of the book, he started nodding his head with excitement because he watched a documentary about Tammet when he curled up on his bed one afternoon during one of our snow days this past winter.

 I read Daniel Tammet's Thinking in NumbersOn Life, Love, Meaning, and Math for one of my books of the week in March, but decided to write about it in April since math and poetry connect rather nicely, and April is National Poetry Month.  For me there were many beautiful aspects to Tammet's ideas, but one of the parts that resonated with me most was about mathematics being flexible and not a rigid set of problems and procedures to memorize step-by-step.  That's the way I was taught math as a child and teenager, and I hated it because it allowed little room for thinking or exploring.  It was all about following the directions and procedures to get to an answer one way (and make sure you show your work using the procedure you were taught!).

Beautifully, Tammet references Charles Dickens writing about the dreaded multiplication tables.  Tammet then proceeds to describe different ways to reach the number 56.  A sampling of Tammet's explanation here from page 38-39 of his book.

56 = 28 X 2
56 = 14 X 4
56 = 7 X 8
56 = 3.5 X 16
56 = 1.75 X 32
56 = 0.875 X 64

Tammet goes on to write three or four pages about familiar forms being "simple and succinct but finely wrought."

Another favorite chapter titled The Admirable Number Pi struck a chord with me because of my son's interest in Pi.  Ethan watched parts of Tammet reciting Pi in the documentary.  Seeing my 13 year-old excited about a man reciting Pi was reason enough to like this particular chapter in Tammet's book.  But there's more reason as well.  When Tammet talks about seeing the infinite number Pi in phrases and images, I'm intrigued by the ideas, the art, the humanness of numbers.  Really, I've never thought about this before now--exciting for me as I continue learning to muse.

Finally, I must mention Tammet's numerous allusions to novels, language, rhetoric, and poetry.  Clearly he's read a wide range of authors and texts as he writes about ideas and topics presented in the works of many authors in the Western Canon, including Dante.  Specifically, he writes about one of Dante's sestinas and he dwells on the numbers associated with a sestina.

"Which is to say, the final word in line six of the first standa (1 2 3 4 5 6) reappears  as the last word of the next stanza's opening line (6 1 2 3 4 3), and at the close of the second line of stanza three (3 6 4 1 2 5), and so on.... (page 184)."

His explanations are too remarkable for me to tell you about in a simple paragraph, so all I can do now is recommend that you read the book for yourself and maybe then share your reading with a child who is interested in numbers.