I had just given an evening program for families at a school in Berkeley when a parent named Steven Birenbaum came up to tell me something remarkable. During the presentation I had introduced my book G Is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book by projecting this inequality on the screen. (The slashed equal sign means “does not equal.”)
I got an email the other day from a parent looking for good mathematical literature to interest and challenge older children. Is there any? Which books would I recommend?
Before I describe a few of my faves, I must point out, as I did at length in my INK post of May 28, 2008, that many educators have inspired intermediate grade, middle school and even high school students with picture books, using them as age-appropriate teaching tools. I believe my most successful mathematical picture books are those that can be used on many levels. In fact, when asked the target age for How Much is a Million?, I often say, “Preschool through high school.” Actually, it’s not true. I should say. “Preschool through college,” but that answer might sound overly smug. (I have twice met college professors who use my book when teaching about Avogadro’s number, a behemoth number critically important in understanding quantitative chemistry.) That said, I will mention a few books that probably wouldn’t make it into the 2nd grade math classroom but should be a staple of math classrooms or libraries serving upper elementary, middle school and high school students.
In The Number Devil by German author Hans Magnus Enzensberger, a middle school-age boy named Robert dreams of travels through the world of mathematics under the tutelage of an impish devil whom he at first finds annoying but gradually comes to enjoy and admire. At the start of the book, Robert is a mediocre and indifferent math student — no surprise, considering that his ho-hum teacher at school gives the students mathematical busywork without the least bit of mathematical inspiration. (His uncomprehending mother is no better: she believes a son who voluntarily speaks of mathematical concepts must be ill!) But Robert and the devil are on an irrepressible romp and together they challenge each other while developing plethora of mathematical concepts and meeting a pantheon of famous mathematicians. All names are whimsically disguised — Leonhard Euler becomes “Owl” (Eule in German translates to “owl” in English) and roots (as in square roots, cube roots, etc.) are called “rutabagas” (which are literal roots) — just two of many such examples. Figuring out the conventional words for the concepts at hand just adds to the devilish fun of this 1997 book which is well on its way to becoming a classic.
Flatland is not on its way to classic status: it’s already there. Like The Number Devil, it incorporates dreams but the concepts are geometrical rather than numerical. This novella, written in 1884 by English schoolmaster Edwin A. Abbott, is a pointed satire of closed-minded, hierarchical Victorian society but it is also, as Isaac Asimov put it, “The best introduction one can find into the manner of perceiving dimensions.” The story has been developed into several short films and a 2007 feature film; there have been TV episodes, a role-playing game and sequels by other authors.
The narrator of the original Flatland is a square named – ready? — A. Square. He lives in Continue reading