# Your number's up – a case for the usefulness of useless maths

I once made the mistake of asking a mathematician why he devoted his whole life to maths. “Because it’s fun!” he replied wildly, his flabby cheeks beaming with childlike excitement.

“Ah, of course,” I thought to myself. “It is fun.”

But what can it do for society? It’s a question I’ve been asked by various people on scholarships committees and one that, over the course of this article and another to follow, I hope to answer.

I spend my time in an area of maths called number theory, which essentially looks at the shape of the counting numbers.

Other number theorists might encapsulate it differently, but it’s this perspective that keeps me on the edge of my seat. At the heart of this theory, we look at the distribution of the prime numbers.

Prime numbers

As one usually learns in their first few years of primary school, a prime number has a mathematical description (to do with factors) which, if stated here, might alienate more readers than it attracts. Let’s instead consider the following light-hearted definition:

Let’s say you have a pile of biscuits. The number of biscuits you have is a prime number if there is no way to arrange those biscuits into a neat rectangle.

So if I gave you seven biscuits (think of it as a very early Christmas present) then you could arrange them like this:

We think of the above as a line, and not a rectangle. We could also arrange them like this:

But no matter how hard you try, you just won’t be able to arrange them into a rectangle! Therefore, seven is a prime number.

On the other hand, 12 is not a prime number, for 12 biscuits can be nicely arranged into a rectangle as follows:

Or even like this:

If you wanted to, you could arrange 12 biscuits in a way that wasn’t a rectangle. The point is, if you can arrange them in a rectangle in at least one way, then the number is not a prime.

So there is something shape-y about the prime numbers. The really delightful thing is that prime numbers seem to just pop their head up in the counting numbers wherever they feel like it. Not only that, but they go on forever.

This fact – that there are infinitely many prime numbers – is an ancient theorem and was first proved to be true by the grand mathematician Euclid around 300 BC. The sequence of prime numbers starts as follows:

2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31 …

Primes are often called the atoms of arithmetic, and there is a good reason for this. Using only the primes, we can, through multiplication, build all of the composite (i.e. not prime) numbers.

Likewise, if we choose any counting number (except for 1, which is neither prime nor composite), then this number is either a prime or a bunch of primes multiplied together.

60 = 2 x 2 x 3 x 5
34 = 2 x 17

So why would the world’s mathematicians be interested in a subject that’s routinely covered in primary school?

The driving force here, as in most mathematics, is natural curiosity. As mentioned earlier, prime numbers, despite being very simple to describe, are tenacious in the way that they hide in the counting numbers.

That is, there is no identifiable pattern with which they appear.

In fact, questions concerning the distribution of prime numbers are among the hardest unsolved problems in all of mathematics.

A example from the top tier would be the twin prime conjecture, which asks if there are infinitely many primes which differ by only 2.

There are many instances of these twin prime pairs – such as 11 and 13, and 29 and 31 – but it is unknown whether there are infinitely many of these.

Number crunching

Some people believe the primes have been scattered randomly but others know better.

There are a stack of certified results that give order to the chaotic structure of the primes. One such result guarantees you can always find a prime between any number bigger than 1 and its double.

Another result ensures that given any fixed string of digits, there are infinitely many primes which contain this string. If you were to choose the string of digits “1234”, then there are infinitely many prime numbers which contain this string. Here are a few:

12343, 12347, 112349, 123401, 123407 …

The result does not tell you how to find these “string-containing primes”, only that infinitely many of them do exist. What an odd result! What if we were to choose, say, your mobile phone number for a string of digits?

Well, then there are infinitely many prime numbers which contain your phone number within their digits. Indeed, the prime numbers are rather intrusive!

It’s not at all surprising that many people have become mesmerised by the interplay between structure and randomness that presents itself within the sequence of prime numbers.

Some, they say, have even gone crazy trying to solve the difficult problems in the area. For most people, a more important problem seems to be the following: why should we care and is this useful maths?

The rift

Some people believe maths can be cleanly divided into two areas: useful maths and useless maths.

You could also be told that, as soon as a result has been used to model or measure some real-life scenario, it has been deemed useful.

*Bitch Cakes*

In 1940, the renowned mathematician G. H. Hardy wrote A Mathematician’s Apology, an essay he hoped would deliver justification of his life’s work in mathematics.

Within this essay, Hardy labels number theory (his own area of mathematics) as useless. Indeed, at the time, number theory did not have any known uses, so I would have struggled even more with the scholarship committees of Hardy’s time.

But as all mathematicians know, the rift between useful and useless can change with time. In 1977, a trio of mathematicians found a permanent place for number theory in our modern world.

Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman created the RSA algorithm (the three letters are taken from the initials of their surnames), as a way of transmitting secret information between two parties.

Why did they do this and what function does that algorithm play in the real world? That’s a question for the second, and final, part of this argument.

The RSA algorithm (or how to send private love letters)

Adrian Dudek does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

# What Successful Math Students Do

flyontheclassroomwall.blogspot.com

Before the end of the school year I had a discussion with a mum who asked what her child could do in order to continue to be successful in math (e.g. “successful” in a very general, “life skills” sense). “Sam” had always struggled with math and had finally reached a place where she felt successful. Yay!

Mum and I had a great chat, and together (together in the true sense of the word as she had many excellent ideas as well) we came up with the following list of suggestions.
& so … If you had been a fly on my classroom wall you would have seen two women, working together, creating & building on the ideas of one another for the child.

(The Bonus: In the end I feel that I benefited as much as they did.)

This is a really great collection of advice for you to click through to. I strongly recommend it.

By the way—I really feel like there’s not a lot of content on here for Math teachers. What tags are you using? Who do you follow that really hits into math?

# Sixteenth TED Translation

Arthur Benjamin’s formula for changing math education
TED2009, Posted Jun 2009, Filmed Feb 2009
Translated into Filipino (Pilipino) by Schubert Malbas
Reviewed by Polimar Balatbat

# Feeling Good!!!

Today has been so stinking awesome.

Get this.

I went to work (woo?). While I was there, I found out that I made the Dean’s List, which…I knew, but it was nice getting the email! :P Then, as soon as I got off, two of my friends and I went on a 4-mile hike. It was fantastic and I did NOT think it was that long at all. One of my friends told me afterwards and I was SO shocked. Then, Sukie and I went swimming. I actually don’t know how to swim, so she started teaching me how today because she’s the best.

Then, about thirty minutes ago, I found out that I received a \$2,000 scholarship! I seriously sent in that application with NO expectations of receiving the scholarship. It was meant for any mathematics preservice teachers in Texas, and there was only one scholarship. I definitely didn’t think that I would end up being the recipient. So I’m…actually pretty overwhelmed about it. It’s from TCTM (Texas Council of Teachers of Mathematics) and receiving it means that I’m going to be featured in the Texas Mathematics Teacher journal, and I’m just…really, really excited, haha.

So just…yay. Today has been so good. =)

# Here's one of my lesson plans on Law of Sines and Cosines.

Lesson: Laws of Sines and Cosines (Algebra II / Trigonometry)

By the end of the lesson, SWBAT draw triangles to scale with as little as three angle / side measures, and be able to apply the laws of Sines and Cosines to these triangles to calculate the remaining angle and side measurements.  They will be able to analyze a given triangle to determine which law is appropriate for a given diagram, and they will be able to explain what kinds of situations would call for each law.

# A Mathematician's Lament

maa.org

Mathematician Paul Lockhart gives advice on how to revitalize mathematics education: turn it on it’s head.

# Memorable quote of the day, "What's an 'index?'"

While in office hours today I encountered some student archetypes that I would like to share with you with the hopes that you will avoid falling into the same categories.  Or perhaps I am sharing to elicit some empathy?  I don’t know.

I have been teaching remedial college mathematics since late 2006.  Before that time I was a supplemental instructor, tutor and grader starting in late 2003.  I have seen pretty much every type of student that exists.  Today I encountered a couple of students who have realized now, 1.5 weeks from the end of the semester, that they are fucked.

At this point in the semester every concept that we are studying relies upon the previous course material.  These students did fuck-all for the first three months of class.  I never saw them in my office hours and I never received any pleas for help.  Now they are worried and trying to grasp material of which they have zero understanding of its foundations.

I feel a bit of pity for these students.  This pity is not because of their academic woes.  They deserve to fail for their efforts.  I feel a bit bad because I recognize in myself a complete lack of empathy for them.  I have seen hundreds of students pull the same shit for nigh ten years and I notice that every new student who is completely inept at university level study skills must bear the weight of the students who came before them.

When I started teaching I would go out of my way to try to salvage each student’s grade.  I would spend countless extra hours in the library and tutor labs trying to rescue my students from the pit of failure into which they had charged headlong.  I no longer feel this compulsion.  In each of the faces of my new terrible students I see my former terrible students.  I feel like each new person is just another head of the Hydra of Lazy Pupils.  To each student I feel compelled to shout, “I’ve warned you about this!  I’ve given you so much guidance in the past!”  But of course I don’t do this; I have never encountered them before this semester.

Maybe five and a half years is too long to spend teaching remedial math.  It’s starting to get to me.  Thankfully, I was accepted to graduate school.  So I can hope to teach higher level courses where the students are more motivated and passionate about the topics discussed.

I don’t blame the individuals, although I feel a strong compulsion to do so.  I understand system complexity.  I understand that these students are an emergent phenomenon of our education system and culture.  I think I just need a break.  I know I can’t end this problem by myself, but I know I can change a handful of minds and that effect can propagate in unpredictable and startling ways.

Here’s hoping.

# Good Feeling.

One of the best feelings in the world is the feeling of relief and accomplishment that comes with finally completing and submitting that one assignment you’ve been procrastinating doing for weeks. Finishing and submitting it on the day it’s due, and yet still knowing that you did good. You covered all the points and it meets the word limit and is perfectly referenced and professionally formatted and it sounds smart and not like it was done at the last minute at all.

Yeah, that’s a good feeling.

# What I'm doing isn't "New Math"

{An intelligent reply made me think of this, I’m certainly not arguing with that person..because we agree :-) }

What I’m doing in my class is somewhat related to “New Math” ideas, but certainly not NM.

New Math was a movement int he 1970s that stressed abstract math ideas such as sets, different bases, and modular arithmetic (like clocks being arithmetic mod 12), and so on.  It was introduced in elementary schools, and failed miserably.   It’s main reasons for failure were:

-The teachers themselves (K-5 teachers) didn’t have NEARLY a good enough background in math to teach it competently.

-It was often used as a near replacement, not a supplement to standard mathematical knowledge.

However, I believe the ethos of New Math is wondrous.  In addition to a solid background in basic math, I truly to believe students need to be exposed to some of these ideas, because it adds depth and meaning to an often dry subject.  A lot of kids like English because they get to think about greater themes and cool philosophical ideas.  Math is an extremely thematic and philosophical field..when not reduced to mult. tables and surface areas alone.

Conclusion: In practice, New Math became what Tom Lehrer ridiculed in his famous song “New Math.”  It become a computational nightmare, having kids carry out operations in different bases, pretty much aimlessly.  (Too much focus on structure, not enough on applied math)

I am approaching this from a completely different point.  I try to introduce ideas within the context of group work, activities, class simulations, and discussions.  It isn’t just abstraction for the sake of abstraction.

Example:

New Math: Focuses on mod arithmetic.

Me: Teaches mod. arithmetic to work with codes and ciphers

New Math (and even most modern curricula): Abstract use of matrices.

Me: Using matrices in game theory to draw larger conclusions.

Am I really the only person out there who hasn’t changed their major?

# 20 + Things to Do To With A Hundred Chart

letsplaymath.net

A great article courtesy of the Early Mathematics Education Project about teaching your kids number sense.