Sketch of my math dance piece

February 13, 2009

It’s called “What I was working on today.”

I come out and aggressively challenge the audience:

“I’m Dan, and I’m a math student PhD, and tonight one of you is going to come up here and solve a math problem, because you’re not dumb. You—you look nervous. This is easy—everyone can do this. You—” etc.

Then I step back and relax.

“When I tell people I do math, sometimes I think that’s what they expect me to do. I’ve got news—doing math and being smart have nothing to do with each other. There are a lot of dumb mathematicians in the world and a lot of very smart people who don’t do math at all.

“I’m going to tell you a story… A teacher once gave his class an assignment to keep them busy: add up the numbers 1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9 and keep adding until you get to 100. The teacher figured this would be a good way to keep all the kids busy, and the kids set to work, adding 1+2+3+4 and it was a waste of time for all of them. Because they weren’t making their own choices, they were doing it the way the teacher told them. And you know what—it was boring for them, and they all they all got it wrong. But one student made a choice that was his own: instead of adding in the teacher’s order, he thought, what if I add the biggest and smallest numbers together? So he added the 1 to the 100, and got 101, and set it aside. Then he put the 2 and the 99 together and got 101, and set it aside; then he added 3 to 98 and got 101 and put it aside; and added 4 to 97 and got 101 and put it aside; and he realized that if he paired the numbers this way he would always get 101. How many pairs? 100 numbers means 50 pairs, so that’s fifty sets of 101. That’s just a multiplication problem! Fifty times 101. He could do that, and he did: the answer was 5050, and he was the only one to get it right, and in doing so he discovered a beautiful and powerful pattern.

This is what doing math feels like: you make choices and discover beautiful patterns. I can’t give you the full feeling of what it’s like to be a mathematician, but I think it starts with asking a question. Somewhere in there you all have questions about math that haven’t been answered. Today, I want to give you the opportunity to ask them, and if I can, I’ll answer them. My brain is open.”

And then I take questions. After I answer a few, I say “I’m going to show you what I was working on today.” Then I move into a dance where I try to relate physically what my current work looks like and feels like.

Notes from my group: I need to practice more on fielding the questions so I can make ANY question sound really interesting, and take it in cool directions. Second, they liked my dancing, and thought I could expand it from a brief taste to fuller arc.

It’s pretty exciting stuff. Afterwards people came up and talked to me about math in their lives. I need to start getting interviews and lectures on this blog.

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