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Mathematicians Are People, Too

by Robert Black

Some of the world’s most eminent mathematicians led fascinating lives. One was the only legitimate child of a notorious poet, taught the rigors of math so she wouldn’t follow in her father’s footsteps. One was a career government official who only studied math as his hobby. And one became a celebrity by carrying a lamp around an overcrowded army hospital in modern-day Turkey.

Mathematicians have long had a bad reputation in popular culture. When Arthur Conan Doyle needed an archenemy for Sherlock Holmes, he created mathematics professor James Moriarty. When The Simpsons wanted to parody a NASA space shuttle crew, they chose to make the group “a mathematician, a different kind of mathematician, and a statistician.” But is the bad press really deserved? The producers of Hidden Figures didn’t think so, and things turned out all right for them.

I was raised by mathematicians and have known plenty of others, and I can assure you that they’re as human as the rest of us. Maybe that’s why I jumped on board so quickly when Royal Fireworks Press first proposed writing a biographical series about mathematicians, Mathematical Lives. But as I began developing my ideas, I realized that the series could be a lot more than what we originally thought.

What makes the Mathematical Lives books different from most biographies is—as you might expect—the math. Each volume takes an in-depth look at a few of the specific math problems its subject or subjects worked on, introducing readers to their origins and the concepts behind them before explaining their solutions. Readers can even work through the problems on their own (or simplified versions, in some cases) in an appendix called “Doing the Math” at the end of each book.

Apart from the first book in the series (more on that in a moment), simply choosing the right mathematicians to profile took more than a year of research and planning. It would have been easy for me to write an entire series that only profiled European men, but all kinds of people can do math, and I wanted to reflect that wider diversity. It wasn’t easy. Unfortunately, there aren’t many historical sources on the lives of mathematicians outside Europe or from more than a few hundred years ago, and modern mathematicians often explore advanced fields. I wanted subjects who worked on problems that readers can relate to. Srinivasa Ramanujan, for example, may have been a fascinating genius, but how many middle school kids can relate to his conjecture on the size of the tau-function? I can’t even do that.

Gradually, though, a group of subjects emerged, and as they did, a broader theme emerged as well. It has turned out that the areas of math covered in the Mathematical Lives series all look to be vital for meeting the challenges of the future. Today’s middle school students who pursue careers in the STEM fields are likely to need one or more of them down the road. The Mathematical Lives series can give readers a head start by introducing them to the people who helped bring those mathematical skills to the world.

The first book in the series came to my mind almost immediately, and so did its title: The Probability Pen Pals. It tells the story of two 17th-century Frenchmen, Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat, who worked out the basics of probability theory, doing it entirely through letters, never meeting in person, in response to a French aristocrat’s request for some gambling advice. The letters, seven of which were preserved for history, show both the steps they went through in developing their theory and the way mathematicians make advances by collaborating. The two men who wrote them were very different, and each had other great achievements. Pascal made scientific discoveries and wrote theological treatises and also invented one of the first mechanical calculators. Fermat was arguably the greatest amateur mathematician of all time, spending a career in his local government but still finding time to develop number theory and help lay the foundations for analytic geometry and calculus.

For the second book, I chose someone most people don’t think of as a mathematician: nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale. After her return from the Crimean War, she used statistical analysis to make her case for sanitary reform, first in the British Army and then in wider society. She was one of the first people to communicate her points to the general public through statistical diagrams, a practice used every day in our time. In the Mathematical Lives series, readers can see how those diagrams were made and can even recreate some of them.

The next two volumes introduce readers to a pair of individuals who specialized in fields used in computer science. David Blackwell studied combat scenarios at the RAND Corporation in the early days of the Cold War, leading to a career in game theory and statistical decision-making, both of which are used in artificial intelligence. He went on to teach at the University of California, where he became the first African-American elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Ada Lovelace, daughter of British poet Lord Byron, invented the computer algorithm a full century before electronic computers even existed. Working with inventor Charles Babbage, who had designed a series of mechanical computing machines, she envisioned a world where machines would someday use data to create pictures or music.

The remaining books cover two of the most fascinating new fields in mathematics today, giving us insight into the numbers behind our complicated world. The first profiles Benoit Mandelbrot, who was born into a Jewish family in Poland and spent his teen years hiding from the Nazis in southern France. After immigrating to the U.S., he invented fractal geometry, a technique that has given us realistic computer graphics, compact antennas, better analysis of financial trends, and much more. The final volume introduces Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist whose accidental discovery during a computer weather simulation in 1961 led to the invention of chaos theory. He popularized his ideas through an example known as “the Butterfly Effect,” showing how small changes can produce unexpectedly large results, such as a hurricane in one place being started by the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in another place. (Lorenz actually suggested a seagull at first, but then he changed it.)

The stories of these pioneers show that math—even complicated, advanced math—is done by real people who lived real lives. They didn’t start out knowing everything. They had to study and learn, making both discoveries and mistakes along the way. By following the paths they took, readers can uncover the human side of mathematics, and maybe some of those readers will reach for mathematical lives of their own.

Robert Black grew up in Indianapolis, where his parents were both high school math teachers. He attended Park Tudor School in Indianapolis (where his parents taught) from kindergarten through high school. He graduated from Vanderbilt University with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and mathematics. He has been writing for children since the mid-1980s, when he worked on the Nickelodeon TV series You Can’t Do That on Television. He currently works as quality systems manager in California. In addition to his Mathematical Lives books, he has also written a series of mathematical fiction books called Mathematical Nights.

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