I’ve written a few times about math. It’s an important subject and especially lately it seems to make a big impact on our family’s life. Here are some thoughts I’ve had recently:

Thought #1:

This week both my kids will spend Tuesday and Wednesday taking the math MSA exams in school. That’s Maryland School Assessment, our annual standardized tests to determine whether their schools meet Annual Yearly Progress. I’m astounded by the tenacity of my daughter’s teachers to drill, drill, drill math. For the last week (that is, ever since they finished their reading MSA tests last week), the teachers have declared each day “math day”. They have put aside all other subjects, and the three 3rd grade classes switch around to each teacher, to break the day up a little, focusing on all math, all day long. I can’t believe there hasn’t been a rebellion! Fortunately, I these teachers are pretty good at making at least some of the math fun.

Without getting political, I think it’s pretty crazy that these teachers introduced the year at Back to School night by telling us parents that despite the fact that the semester runs through early June, they have to cover the whole curriculum before the March MSAs, so the third grade moves at break-neck speed. They have worked really hard, and I hope they can squeak by, showing appropriate improvement. In order for the school to meet AYP a higher percentage of 3rd grade kids have to do better on the MSA exams than the 3rd grade class did last year, even though it’s a different cohort. This is tough. Anyway, after this Wednesday, I’m wondering what the class will do? I know they have a plethora of fieldtrips coming up. I wonder if there’s any chance they could start 4th grade work so that next year as 4th graders they can whip through their curriculum without such a time crunch? Does this seem perverse?

Thought #2:

How do you make math fun? Ten families with 7th and 8th graders who live in our neighborhood got together last fall to chip in and hire a graduate student who is working on his doctorate in math at the university. He’s paid fairly handsomely to figure out an interesting math project about every three weeks and meet with these middle-school kids for a couple hours on Friday night for dessert and math. My daughter (and evidently all the kids) love it; they voted to continue for a second round of math nights this spring semester. It’s social and interesting, even for the kids who aren’t as wild about math – while they are all good students there’s a range of how well they do in math at school. This is not a “class” to catch them up on curriculum-related math skills. This is a chance for them to use math to figure out something interesting, like how a slide rule works, what is a Möbius strip, and all sorts of other topics that I’m learning from my daughter. We talk about fun math at home a lot these days. It’s great.

Thought #3:

Here’s a little story [2] that I listened to on NPR Sunday edition two weeks ago, during part of the time my daughter was fretting over her (math) homework (which I blogged about here [3]). It’s the story of a genius named Simon Norton, renowned as “one of the greatest mathematical protégés of the 20th century.” His math career started almost at birth, he studied high-school level math as a five year old, twice won gold medals at the International Math Olympiad: as a 15-year-old, then as a 16-year-old. He got his PhD at Cambridge University then joined the Department of pure mathematics doing research with his close colleague, John Conway, to solve extraordinarily complex “hyper-dimensional problems in group theory” and shed light on the nature of the universe. Then, in 1985, as his math career was taking off, Norton’s collaborator John Conway moved to a position in the United States, and Simon Norton gave up academia to work on another passion: improving public transportation.

Norton’s biographer, Alexander Masters (whose book “The genius in my basement” recently came out) emphasizes that while academic circles “consider him a catastrophic loss of capacity, and weep for lost ability,” Norton is happy and content and thoroughly engaged in this other lifelong interest. “He doesn’t feel a sense of loss, he constantly feels a sense of purpose.” An extreme story of leaving academia, Norton’s dedication to his other lifelong passion fascinates me. While I suppose it’s natural for his field to regret his departure as a failure, their regrets come from a one-sided perspective – his other interests aren’t their concern! Although hard to compare, his contributions to public transportation may in fact turn out to equal or exceed his contributions to theoretical mathematics. Even if they don’t, Norton, who is extremely anti-car, views this passion as having as much importance to his life (and his happiness) as his life-long passion with math. I wonder if academia may have been able to better support and retain him. I could be wrong (maybe a math type out there can confirm this) but in a web search it looks like he may, in fact still be somewhat active in this field, publishing math findings as an independent scholar. Perhaps one day he will once again immerse himself in theoretical mathematics. Like a Mobius strip, life often twists and loops in interesting ways.