'L.A. Math'

Math professor and author discusses new short story collection that blends his discipline with fiction.

January 29, 2016

Few, if any, short story collections contain, in addition to a table of contents, a list of the mathematical topics covered in each chapter. James Stein’s new book, L.A. Math: Romance, Crime, and Mathematics in the City of Angels (Princeton University Press), does. Chapter Five, for example, covers linear equations. Chapter Five is also a short story entitled “The Accidental Guest,” in which a private detective and his sports-addicted math whiz landlord solve a mysterious jewel theft using algebra. Each story hinges on a problem -- sometimes personal, sometimes professional -- that can be solved using basic mathematical concepts (which the landlord, Pete, patiently explains to Freddy, a private detective). Think Sherlock Holmes with mathematical know-how in the place of arcane knowledge about tobacco ash.

Stein is a writer and emeritus professor of mathematics at California State University at Long Beach. His previous books -- all nonfiction -- include Cosmic Numbers and How Math Explains the World. He answered questions about his new book via email.

Q: Twenty years ago, when you first started working on this book, it started out as “the most student-friendly math text ever written.” What was the basic idea?

A: I wanted to write a book which would make math comfortable for students who needed to ease into mathematical ideas. Many students are uncomfortable with math for a variety of reasons, one of which is that its ideas -- and the expression of those ideas -- seem cold and inhuman. Of course, we math teachers don’t think so -- for us, even though it’s not warm and fuzzy, we see math as the perfect language for expressing some powerful and intriguing ideas. I thought that writing stories introducing the ideas would be a good middle ground -- the ideas would be there, but they’d be expressed in a way that students might find more accessible. Mary Poppins was right -- a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

Q: What's changed since then? Has the premise and purpose of the book evolved?

A: The book now has less mathematical material than it did back then. I was originally writing it as a text for a math course intended for non-STEM majors, and so I had to develop the mathematics in more detail. I think of it now as a stand-alone book that could be read for entertainment, but I’m hoping that it will be used by creative instructors as a companion text around which to build a course -- there’s an awful lot of material available on the Web. Twenty years ago, the book also had a lead-in story that I think is the best story ever written about the charm of mathematics, “The Devil and Simon Flagg” by Arthur Porges. Art graciously consented to let me use the story then, without the usual demand for royalties. Art has passed away since then, but I think everyone would enjoy that story.

Q: Who is this book for?

A: I’m hoping that it appeals to people who like math, but also to those who don’t. So, by the way, does my publisher. Although originally written as a textbook, it’s now a book that I hope helps all the people I’ve met -- and haven’t met -- who find it difficult to come to grips with math because it doesn’t seem, well, human. Or fun. All the really good instructors know that the key to getting students to learn something is to make them enjoy the experience -- and it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about math, history or automotive mechanics. There are different ways to make people enjoy the learning experience, and I hope I’ve plugged into one of them.

Q: A common (cliché, really) question put to most authors is whether they start with a character in mind or a setting or a specific scene. For you, though, the question would be: Would you start with the math or the mystery?

A: I had to start with the math, because that was the driving idea for the book, but I needed characters. I actually wrote a few stories using characters modeled on P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster. The stories were stilted and artificial, because I was writing about characters and an environment I didn’t really know. I then read a few interviews with authors, and to a man -- and woman -- they all said, “Write what you know!” Well, I knew Pete and Freddy; they’re composites of a bunch of people I’ve known, and some of the anecdotes actually occurred. I’d spent a lot of time with gamblers and sports junkies, and I’d read lots of mystery stories and light comedy. Now I had the characters, the environment and the writing style -- and the great thing about math is that it fits into almost any environment. It’s a universal language.

Q: Do you think fiction is undervalued in or by the STEM areas of study? Why is that, and what should be done?

A: I think fiction can be used for the general education courses that introduce people to STEM subjects, much as I've tried to do (shameless plug here) with L.A. Math. I know of no better general-purpose introduction to the theory of gravity than Isaac Asimov's classic sci-fi story Nightfall. Have students read that, then follow it with a short discussion of Newton's theory of universal gravitation and Einstein's theory of relativity. Winner! In fact, I think the following is a worthwhile project -- do something like this for a number of the great STEM ideas, and make a book out of it. I'd love to get involved in such a project.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from this collection?

A: I hope everyone enjoys the stories -- or at least, most of the stories. I also hope that the people who don’t seem to get math remember a few of the mathematical ideas in the book. I originally wrote the book because a lot of things that we remember require context to make them memorable. I’ve forgotten most of the history I learned because it was just facts to be memorized. But make the fact part of an enjoyable story, and you have some context you can hang on to. A lot of what I remember about the French Revolution comes from Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. There are some important mathematical ideas in L.A. Math, and if the stories are good, some people may remember the ideas just because there was something memorable about the story in which they encountered them.

Q: Finally, is this the end? Or will Pete and Freddy return in the future, perhaps wrestling with differential equations or advanced regression analyses?

A: I think L.A. Math has a feel-good ending, but remember that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle responded to popular demand and revived Sherlock Holmes after the Reichenbach Falls incident. I'd definitely be willing to write more stories if people seemed interested -- and if I were able to come up with some good ideas. However, I don't think this works with differential equations or any advanced topic -- it's just too geeky, and that's not who Freddy is. Freddy writes the stories, he can understand basic ideas pretty well, especially if Pete does a good job of explaining them. Freddy is writing to entertain but also to explain ideas for people who are at approximately his level of mathematical sophistication. That being said, mathematics is a very rich subject, and I certainly don't think I've exhausted the supply of topics at this level that make for interesting stories.


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