Wild About Math! Making Math fun and accessible

14Nov/071

Math history made fun

I have to admit, history has never been one of my strong suits. Agnesi to ZenoThat's because I don't have a memory for details that are not relevant to my life. However, I realize that some people like, even love, history. And, from my study of Gardner's multiple intelligences I also get that folks with interpersonal intelligence learn things much better if they can relate to the people and events associated with what they're learning.

At a used book sale last weekend I picked up a copy of Agnesi to Zeno by Sanderson Smith and it has very quickly become one of my very favorite books. Why? It contains 108 vignettes from the history of Math in a very visually appealing and very engaging way, with fun explorations.

I'm very sensitive to presentation and layout of material I read. The best stuff I read has lots of white space, attractive layout, illustrations, and a nice flow to the page. This book has it all.

What about the content? Very engaging. Each vignette has a one page description, a set of activities, and suggestions for related reading.

Some examples from the book:

Vignette 83: Counting and computing device. This vignette touches on devices, from fingers, to the abacus, a Greek mechanical computer, the Inca Quipus, Napier's bones, the slide rule, Pascal's adding machine, Babbage's difference engine, and Hollerith's data processing machine. References are provided to other vignettes within the book that also discuss and explore counting and computing devices. Explorations of finger arithmetic (Chisenbop) and use of the abacus are suggested.

Vignette 77: Schools of Mathematical Thought. Three important schools of mathematical thought are introduced, the Intuitionist School, the Logistic School, and the Formalist School. Mathematicians and philosophers are mentioned: Brouwer, Kant, Russell, Whitehead, and Hilbert, and readers are invited to research their lives and contributions. Readers are introduced to paradoxes in mathematical structure and encouraged to explore how the Logistic School dealt with them.

Vignette 78: Grace Chisholm Young: Versatile and Prolific. This is one of quite a number of vignettes that highlight the contributions of women to mathematics. Young, who I have to admit I had never heard of, collaborated with her husband William Young, on more than 200 articles and books. In 1905, she published a geometry book that included many three-dimensional paper-folding activities. From 1914 to 1916, she presented and developed theories and concepts in differential calculus. This is even more impressive given that the establishment did not support women attending university. Despite this obstacle, Young became the first woman in Germany to earn a PhD in mathematics. Impressive!

I highly recommend this book to educators, parents, home schoolers, students, and adults, all of whom might benefit from a historical context to things mathematical.

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  1. I appreciate the fact that the book shows the relationship amongst various subjects. It shows the students that they cannot compartmentalize their subject areas; additionally, each student is forced to see that each subject is an ingredient in a major subject. Most importantly, it might urge them to study and not take education for granted and be more well rounded.


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