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Math Heroes
Throughout History


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Mathematics did not drop from the sky. We know that, of coursebut do our students? How much richer an appreciation our students might have for mathematics as a living science if we share with them the budding of new ideas in math heroes past and present! It all begins with "I wonder."

For instance, when our students use coordinate geometry, we can tell them that the idea of joining algebra and geometry in this way is said to have come to René Descartes one day in 1637 as he lay in bed wondering how to describe the path of a fly on the ceiling. His work on analytic geometry was one small part of a larger quest for truth launched with the famous words, "I think, therefore I am," meaning that he could be sure of only one thing -- his own existence -- as he began systematically questioning all existing knowledge.

If we ask our students to imagine a world without 0, such as the long-ago Western world that relied on Roman numerals or an abacus to do calculations, we can thank Leonardo Pisano Fibonacci, who learned the calculating methods of the local merchants wherever he went in his extensive travels. In his first book, published in 1200 and revised in 1228, Fibonacci strongly advocated that the ancient Hindu-Arab system of numbers be adopted in the West. After being met with initial skepticism, eventually that book became the standard math text for more than 200 years.

That's nothing compared to Euclid's Elements, that, in pulling together the best work of the Greek mathematicians and presenting a model of logical reasoning, became the standard geometry text for more than 2,000 years!

Students also might enjoy hearing stories of such child prodigies as Carl Friedrich Gauss (17771855), who as a 3-year-old corrected a bookkeeping error of his father's, and as a youth astounded a teacher by almost instantly finding a creative solution to a long and tedious arithmetic task.

Students might benefit from hearing stories of creativity mixed with tenacity, such as the 350-year quest to solve Fermat's Last Theorem, achieved at last by Andrew J. Wiles in 1994, after eight years of intensive and creative work building on pivotal contributions by others.

Students also might be intrigued by quirky anecdotes, such as the MacTutor History of Mathematics account of Abraham DeMoivre, who "is famed for predicting the day of his own death. He found that he was sleeping 15 minutes longer each night and summing the arithmetic progression, calculated that he would die on the day that he slept for 24 hours. He was right!"

Although math heroes are plentiful, there have not been many print or online accounts written for elementary grades, and collections of mathematical biographies are not exactly abundant in local bookstores and libraries.

As you and your students dip into some of the resources recommended here (with some caveats), you might consider how to take an active role in investigating math heroes:

  • What is a math hero? Does it take a new mathematical discovery to be a math hero or can a math hero be someone who uses known math in creative ways?
  • Adopt a math hero. Perhaps each student could learn about one math hero for sharing with the class or a larger audience. The activity could be a wonderful class or collaborative project to develop a new online collection of lively, kid-friendly math biographies.
  • Promote math heroes. Ask your local library to order some of the books recommended below. Ask your local bookstore to stock some in the section of biographies for children. Ask your library or bookstore if they would sponsor a "math hero" day.

Perhaps if we join with our students to help share these inspirational stories, we can be math heroes of sorts, too!

BOOKS ON MATH HEROES

Mathematicians Are People, Too: Stories from the Lives of Great Mathematicians, by Luetta and Wilbert Reimer. Dale Seymour Publications, 1990 (Vol. 1), 1995 (Vol. 2)
These two volumes, featuring 15 compelling stories apiece (with fictionalized dialogue and details) written for ages 8-12, are great for reading aloud to a class, or for independent reading for students aged 10 and above.

Women and Numbers: Lives of Women Mathematicians plus Discovery Activities, by Teri Perl. Wide World Publishing, 1993.
This very readable book for upper-elementary and middle-school grades brings to life the stories of eleven women mathematicians from the 19th and 20th centuries. Following each biography is a discovery activity. For example, one of Mary Boole's numerous accomplishments was to stumble into the creation of string art; the related discovery activity shows how students can create their own string art designs.

Math & Mathematicians: The History of Math Discoveries Around the World, Vol. A-H and I-Z, by Leonard C. Bruno. UXL, 1999.
This two-volume set is organized alphabetically, like a selective math encyclopedia, with 50 short biographies (including fourteen 20th century mathematicians) interspersed with not-always-helpful articles on a variety of math topics. It includes a detailed mathematical timeline, glossary, and alternate table of contents organized by math field and ethnicity. The writing style, though a bit clumsy at times, is reasonably accessible for an upper-elementary read-aloud (with some paraphrasing) or for independent reading at the middle- or high-school level.

Of Men and Numbers: The Story of the Great Mathematicians, by Jane Muir. Dover Publications, 1996,
These stories, originally published in 1961, are lively, but perhaps overly embellished with fictionalized details.

Math Through the Ages: A Gentle History for Teachers and Others, Expanded Edition, by William P. Berlinghoff and Fernando Q. Gouvea. Mathematical Association of America, 2003.
This engaging book, organized by math topic, is recommended for middle-school math teachers and those who teach or study at higher levels. The expanded edition includes classroom resource material.

Remarkable Mathematicians: From Euler to von Neumann, by Ioan James. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
This book of short, lively biographies profiles 60 mathematicians from the early 18th to the early 20th century, organized chronologically; suitable for middle school and above.

Notable Mathematicians: From Ancient Times to the Present, by Robyn V. Young and Zoran Minderovic. Gale Research, 1998.
Three hundred mathematicians are profiled in brief biographies (2-4 pages each) in this reference book for students in grade 9 and above.

The Pantheon Story of Mathematics for Young People, by James T. Rogers. Pantheon Books, 1966.

WEB SITES ON MATH HEROES

MacTutor History of Mathematics: Indexes of Biographies
This comprehensive collection of biographies is a great reference for math teachers or students in middle school and above. Organized alphabetically by last name, it can be a bit daunting to locate information focusing on specific time periods or mathematical fields.

Mathematicians' Anniversaries throughout the Year
This page indexes the same collection of biographies by significant dates (births, deaths, key discoveries). Looking up what mathematical anniversaries are being celebrated on any given day of the school year can be fun.

Biographies of Women Mathematicians

Math Marvels
A high-school honors math class created this Web site of mock interviews in 2001-02. The interviews are fun, but not polished. Good resources are included at the end of each.

Math Quiz
At this site, developed by the NCES (National Center for Educational Statistics), students can take a preferences quiz and find mathematicians with overlapping interests. The biographies are written in a fairly lively style, but in a small font.

Online Math Applications!: History
This student-created Thinkquest site was a first-place winner in 1998 and includes some biographies of mathematicians, but they are not well-written.

MATH HEROES IN THE NEWS

Students might be interested to learn how mathematicians have played a part in the war against terrorism in recent years:

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