To Infinity and Beyond

Steven Strogatz’s column in the nytimes sadly came to an end earlier this week with yet another great explanation of complex math ideas, like differing magnitudes of infinity, made simple. His idea of writing a column explaining math concepts starting with the pre-K and counting all the way through grad school mathematics was a lofty goal, and so incredibly well executed. In his first post, he says “our freedom lies in the questions we ask — and in how we pursue them — but not in the answers awaiting us.”  One of my favorites of his posts is titled Division and its Discontents.

After reading it I posed the question, what is one fourth of one fourth to a few of my second graders. They didn’t know anything about multiplying denominators and numerators, but what a few did, was draw a square or circle,

and divide it into four pieces. Staring at their drawing one child began dividing one of the sections into four more section. Another pause ensued (and I’m guessing he was mental

ly figuring out the four sections of four), and suddenly he said, “one sixteenth.” Although that wasn’t what got me excited. After I acknowledged his response one of his peers said to him, “How did you get that? Can you show me?” I don’t know about most teachers, but for me, when students start asking other students to teach them something, I do a happy dance.

If you’re an elementary school math teacher, I highly recommend the first 5 in the series, who knows, you might end up reading them all and perhaps when Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story says, “To infinity and beyond,” it might make some sense.

You can start at the beginning of the column by clicking here.

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