Written: May 27, 2003
The previous opinion, about Amir Alexander's Narrative approach to the History of Mathematics reminded me of an equally original, and hopefully less controversial "Narrative approach", not to mathematics or its history per se, but to the even more important endeavor of mathematics education. Perhaps these two approaches can strengthen each other.
Of course the intersection of mathematicians and story-tellers is non-empty, and good teachers always used puzzles, which are really short stories, to motivate and challenge students. But as a whole, math ed is still very dry, and to most students boring at best, and outright painful at worst.
The creative author of the charming masterpiece "Uncle Petros and the Goldbach Conjecture", that deservedly was an International bestseller, Apostolos Doxiadis has recently given a very convincing Opening address to the Third Mediterranean Conference on mathematics education. I urge you read this beautiful essay, and there is not much I can add. Doxiadis's talk was targeted mainly to mathematical educators rather than research mathematicians, and there he argues for the creation of a new para-profession that he calls "para-mathematician", since he does not trust "professional" mathematicians to rise to the challenge of making math fun through stories. In his words:
``As for mathematicians themselves: don't expect too much help. Most of them are too far removed in their ivory towers to take up such challenges. And anyway, they are not competent. After all, they are just mathematicians-what we need is paramathematicians, like you... It is you who can be the welding force, between mathematicians and stories, in order to achieve the synthesis."
While Doxiadis is probably right that mathematicians could not be trusted to practice this narrative approach to math-ed by themselves, we can still do our best to encourage and endorse it, and in our own modest way occasionally embed human-interest stories, both real and fictional, and sometimes even outright "gossip". We should also recommend such masterpieces as Uncle Petros to our students, and even promise "extra-credit" for reading them.
Speaking of math and stories, John Allen Paulos 's masterpiece "Once Upon a Number", and his numerous other great books, should also be read by any mathematical researcher and educator, since they are chuck-full of good stories. And of course, don't forget "Alice in Wonderland", Martin Gardener's many collections, and the recent excellent books on the Riemann Hypothesis by Karl Sabbagh and Marcus du Sautoy, as well as George Szpiro's book on the Kepler Conjecture and Robin Wilson's on the Four Color Theorem. Finally, the book that turned me (and many generations up to and including mine) into mathematicians, Lancelot Hogben's "Mathematics for the Million" should be recommended reading, and at any rate brought back to print.
As fewer and fewer students are interested in becoming professional mathematicians, it is today especially urgent to adopt Doxiadis's "fun approach" to the teaching of math to all levels of students, from the future provers of the Goldbach conjecture all the way to the chronic sufferers of math-anxiety.
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