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Marc Chamberland wants to expand the conversation about math.
'Mathematicians are good at talking to each other ... There's relatively little that's written for a popular audience,” he says in a phone interview from his home in Grinnell.
Chamberland, the Myra Steele Professor of Mathematics at Grinnell College, has long been interested in reaching out to a wider audience. In 2014, he launched 'Tipping Point Math,” a YouTube channel that now boasts more than 10,000 subscribers and has racked up well over 700,000 views.
His efforts continue with his new book, 'Single Digits: In Praise of Small Numbers.” The book explores each of the numbers one through nine.
'I like organizing ideas into common topics,” Chamberland says. Over time, he found himself collecting interesting facts about the single digits. He was choosy about those fact, however.
'I was not interested in facts with a numerological bent or silly simple things ... I looked for different things connected to each number that made them special.” He cited, for example, the fact that there is no formula to solve degree five polynomial equations, making five the smallest number for which that is the case.
If we lost you at 'polynomial equations,” Chamberland has a theory as to why. 'I think a lot of people have been turned off by math ... In school, the ideas are almost completely submerged and all we learn is the technical stuff ... The great ideas - the beautiful ideas - of mathematics don't come out.”
He compares the situation to attempting to foster a love of fixing cars by only showing a student the tools and never the car.
In 'Single Digits,” Chamberland worked hard to focus on the ideas and not the technical matters, though the book certainly contains formulae and diagrams that may give some readers pause.
But plenty of passages don't require specialized knowledge at all. On the phone, Chamberland took me through the 'pizza theorem” (which appears in chapter eight of 'Single Digits” and in an episode of 'Tipping Point Math”), a story that reveals a counterintuitive fact about how to share a pizza when you misidentify the center, but still make the anticipated cuts when you slice it.
'Here's a nice simple fact,” Chamberland says after sharing the theorem. 'I think anyone can appreciate it.”
He hopes that sort of appreciation can overcome people's negative feelings about math.
'I want to reach out to people who feel jaded or less than satisfied with their math experience,” he says.
He also wants people to know that mathematics is an exciting and expanding field. 'One big misconception people have about mathematics is that all of mathematics is known or discovered, and that's not the case ... I'm not just a math popularizer, I'm a researcher, as well.”
He's also an artist. Using a high-end 3-D printer at Grinnell, he has used mathematical ideas to create art, and he has had pieces accepted into three juried exhibitions, including two in the United States and one in the Netherlands. He hopes to do more.
'Mathematics can be linked to creativity,” he says. 'We can show an interesting form connected to an interesting mathematical idea.”