# A TOK Lecture on Mathematical Thinking

Students in our International Baccalaureate program here at RM are required to take a core class called Theory of Knowledge (TOK) which is kind of a philosophy class for high school students–or, at least the epistemology piece.

In some schools, this course is taught by math teachers. Here at RM, no math teachers currently teach TOK, which is too bad. So I volunteered to put together a guest lecture on Mathematical Thinking. I’ve tried it out once with a TOK class and I gave the lecture for some of my math teacher colleagues today after school. I plan to give the lecture to more TOK classes this spring.

I thought I’d share it with the MTBoS as well, so here it is. Feel free to read, comment on, or borrow my materials. I think other IB math teachers would especially benefit:

# Why Calculus still belongs at the top

AP Calculus is often seen as the pinnacle of the high school mathematics curriculum*–or the “summit” of the mountain as Professor Arthur Benjamin calls it. Benjamin gave a compelling TED talk in 2009 making the case that this is the wrong summit and the correct summit should be AP Statistics. The talk is less than 3 minutes, so if you haven’t yet seen it, I encourage you to check it out here and my first blog post about it here.

I love Arthur Benjamin and he makes a lot of good points, but I’d like to supply some counter-points in this post, which I’ve titled “Why Calculus still belongs at the top.”

Full disclosure: I teach AP Calculus and I’ve never taught AP Statistics. However I DO know and love statistics–I just took a grad class in Stat and thoroughly enjoyed it. But I wouldn’t want to teach it to high school students. Here’s why: For high school students, non-Calculus based Statistics seems more like magic than mathematics.

When I teach math I try, to the extent that it’s possible, to never provide unjustified statements or unproven claims. (Of course this is not always possible, but I try.) For example, in my Algebra 2 class I derive the quadratic formula. In my Precalculus class, I derive all the trig identities we ask the students to know. And in my Calculus class, I “derive” the various rules for differentiation or integration. I often tell the students that copying down the proof is completely optional and the proof will not be tested–”just sit back and relax and enjoy the show!”

But such an approach to mathematical thinking can rarely be applied in a high school Statistics course because statistics rests SO heavily on calculus and so the ‘proofs’ are inaccessible. I’d like to make a startling claim: I claim that 99.99% of AP Statistics students and 99% of AP Statistics teachers cannot even give the function-rule for the normal distribution.

Image used by permission from Interactive Mathematics. Click the image to go there and learn all about the normal distribution!

In what other math class would you talk about a function ALL YEAR and never give its rule? The normal distribution is the centerpiece (literally!) of the Statistics curriculum. And yet we never even tell them its equation nor where it comes from. That should be some kind of mathematical crime. We might as well call the normal distribution the “magic curve.”

Furthermore, a kid can go through all of AP Statistics and never think about integration, even though that’s what their doing every single time they look up values in those stat tables in the back of the book.

I agree that statistics is more applicable to the ‘real world’ of most of these kids’ lives, and on that point, I agree with Arthur Benjamin. But I would argue that application is not the most important reason we teach mathematics. The most important thing we teach kids is mathematical thinking.

The same thing is true of every other high school subject area. Will most students ever need to know particular historical facts? No. We aim to train them in historical thinking. What about balancing an equation in Chemistry? Or dissecting a frog? They’ll likely never do that again, but they’re getting a taste of what scientists do and how they think. In general, two of our aims as secondary educators are to (1) provide a liberal education for students so they can engage in intelligent conversations with all people in all subject areas in the adult world and (2) to open doors for a future career in a more narrow field of study.

So where does statistics fit into all of this? I think it’s still worth teaching, of course. It’s very important and has real world meaning. But the value I find in teaching statistics feels VERY different than the value I find in teaching every other math class. Like I said before, it feels a bit more like magic than mathematics.**

I argue that Calculus does a better job of training students to think mathematically.

But maybe that’s just how I feel. Maybe we can get Art Benjamin to stop by and weigh in!

.

….

*In our school, and in many other schools, we actually have many more class options beyond Calculus for those students who take Calculus in their Sophomore or Junior year and want to be exposed to even more math.

** Many parts of basic Probability and Statistics can be taught with explanations and proof, namely the discrete portions–and this should be done. But working with continuous distributions can only be justified using Calculus.

# 87th Carnival of Mathematics

The 87th Carnival of Mathematics has arrived!! Here’s a simple computation for you:

What is the sum of the squares of the first four prime numbers?

That’s right, it’s

Good job. Now, onto the carnival. This is my first carnival, so hopefully I’ll do all these posts justice. We had lots of great submissions, so I encourage you to read through this with a fine-toothed comb. Enjoy!

# Rants

Here’s a post (rant) from Andrew Taylor regarding the coverage from the BBC and the Guardian on the Supermoon that occurred in March 2011. NASA reports the moon as being 14% larger and 30% brighter, but Andrew disagrees. Go check out the post, and join the conversation.

Have you ever heard someone abuse the phrase “exponentially better”? I know I have. One incorrect usage occurs when someone makes the claim that something is “exponentially better” based on only two data points. Rebecka Peterson has some words for you here, if you’re the kind of person who says this!

# Physics and Science-flavored

Frederick Koh submitted Problem 19: Mechanics of Two Separate Particles Projected Vertically From Different Heights to the carnival. It’s a fun projectile motion question which would be appropriate for a Precalculus classroom (or Calculus). I like the problem, and I think my students would like it too.

John D. Cook highlights a question you’ve probably heard before: Should you walk or run in the rain? An active discussion is going on in the comments section. It’s been discussed in many other places too, including twice on Mythbusters. (I feel like I read an article in an MAA or NCTM magazine on this topic once, as well. Anyone remember that?)

Murray Bourne submitted this awesome post about modeling fish stocks. Murray says his post is an “attempt to make mathematical modeling a bit less scary than in most textbooks.” I think he achieves his goal in this thorough development of a mathematical model for sustainable fisheries (see the graph above for one of his later examples of a stable solution under lots of interesting constraints). If I taught differential equations, I would  absolutely use his examples.

Last week I highlighted this new physics blog, but I wanted to point you there again: Go check out Five Minute Physics! A few more videos have been posted, and also a link to this great video about the physics of a dropping Slinky (see above).

# Statistics, Probability, & Combinatorics

Mr. Gregg analyzes European football using the Poisson distribution in his post, The Table Never Lies. I liked how much real world data he brought to the discussion. And I also liked that he admitted when his model worked and when it didn’t–he lets you in on his own mathematical thought process. As you read this post, you too will find yourself thinking out loud with Mr. Gregg.

Card Colm has written this excellent post that will help you wrap your mind around the number of arrangements of cards in a deck. It’s a simple high school-level topic, but he really puts it into perspective:

the number of possible ways to order or permute just the hearts is 13!=6,227,020,800. That’s about what the world population was in 2002. So back then if somebody could have made a list of all possible ways to arrange those 13 cards in a row, there would have been enough people on the planet for everyone to get one such permutation.

I think it’s good to remind ourselves that whenever we shuffle the deck, we can be almost certain that our arrangement has never been created before (since  $52!\approx 8\times 10^{67}$  arrangements are possible). Wow!

Alex is looking for “random” numbers by simply asking people. Go contribute your own “random” number here. Can’t wait to see the results!

Quick! Think of an example of a real-world bimodal distribution! Maybe you have a ready example if you teach stat, but here’s a really nice example from Michael Lugo: Book prices. Before you read his post, you should make a guess as to why the book prices he looked at are bimodal (see histogram above).

# Philosophy and History of Math

Mike Thayer just attended the NCTM conference in Philadelphia and brings us a thoughtful reaction in his post, The Learning of Mathematics in the 21st Century. Mike wrote this post because he had been left with “an ambivalent feeling” after the conference. He wants to “engage others in mathematics education in discussions about ways to improve what we do outside of the frameworks that are being imposed on us by those outside of our field.” As a secondary educator, I agree with Mike completely and really enjoyed his post. Mike isn’t satisfied with where education is going. In his post, he writes, “We are leaping ahead into the unknown with new educational models, and we never took the time to get the old ones right.”

Edmund Harriss asks Have we ever lost mathematics? He gives a nice recap of foundational crises throughout the history of mathematics, and wonders, ultimately, if we’ve actually lost any mathematics. There’s also a short discussion in the comments section which I recommend to you.

Peter Woit reflects on 25 Years of Topological Quantum Field Theory. Maybe if you have degree in math and physics you might appreciate this post. It went over my head a bit, I’m afraid!

# Book Reviews

In this post, Matt reviews a 2012 book release, Who’s #1, by Amy N. Langville and Carl D. Meyer. The book discusses the ranking systems used by popular websites like Amazon or Netflix. His review is thorough and balanced–Matt has good things to say about the book, but also delivers a bit of criticism for their treatment of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. Thanks for this contribution, Matt! [edit: Thanks MATT!]

Shecky R reviews of David Berlinski’s 2011 book, One, Two Three…Absolutely Elementary mathematics in his Brief Berlinski Book Blurb. I’m not sure his review is an *endorsement*. It sounds like a book that only a small eclectic crowd will enjoy.

# Uncategorized…

Peter Rowlett submitted this post about linear programming and provides a link to an interactive problems solving environment.

Peter Rowlett also weighs in on the recent news about a German high school boy who has (reportedly) solved an open problem. Many news sources have picked up on this, and I’ve only followed the news from a distance. So I was grateful for Peter’s comments–he questions the validity of the news in his recent post “Has schoolboy genius solved problems that baffled mathematicians for centuries?” His comments in another recent post are perhaps even more important though–Peter encourages us to think of ways we can remind our students that lots of open problems still exist, and “Mathematics is an evolving, alive subject to which you could contribute.”

Jess Hawke IS *Heptagrin Girl*

Here’s a fun-loving post about Heptagrins, and all the crazy craft projects you can do with them. Don’t know what a Heptagrin is? Neither did I. But go check out Jess Hawke’s post and she’ll tell you all about them!

Any Lewis Carroll lovers out there? Julia Collins submitted a post entitled “A Night in Wonderland“ about a Lewis Carroll-themed night at the National Museum of Scotland. She writes, “Other people might be interested in the ideas we had and also hearing about what a snark is and why it’s still important.” When you check out this post, you’ll not only learn about snarks but also about creating projective planes with your sewing machine. Cool!

Mike Croucher over at Walking Randomly gives a shout out to the free software Octave, which is a MATLAB replacement. Check out his post, here. MATLAB is ridiculously expensive, and so the world needs an alternative like Octave. He provides links to the Kickstarter campaign–and Mike has backed the project himself. I too believe in Octave. I’ve used it a few times for my grad work and I’ve been very grateful for a free alternative to MATLAB.

# The End

Okay, that’s it for the 87th Carnival of Mathematics. Hope you enjoyed all the posts! Sorry it took me a couple days to post it–there was a lot to digest :-).

If you missed the previous carnival (#86), you can find it here. The next carnival (#88) will be hosted by Christian at checkmyworking.com. For a complete listing of all the carnivals, and more information & FAQ about the carnivals, follow this link.

Cheers!

# Pi R Squared

[Another guest blog entry by Dr. Gene Chase.]

You’ve heard the old joke.

Teacher: Pi R Squared.
Student: No, teacher, pie are round. Cornbread are square.

The purpose of this Pi Day note two days early is to explain why $\pi$ is indeed a square.

The customary definition of $\pi$ is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. But mathematicians are accustomed to defining things in two different ways, and then showing that the two ways are in fact equivalent. Here’s a first example appropriate for my story.

How do we define the function $\exp(z) = e^z$ for complex numbers z? First we define $a^b$ for integers $a > 0$ and b. Then we extend it to rationals, and finally, by requiring that the resulting function be continuous, to reals. As it happens, the resulting function is infinitely differentiable. In fact, if we choose a to be e, the $\lim_{n\to\infty} (1 + \frac{1}{n})^n \,$ not only is $e^x$ infinitely differentiable, but it is its own derivative. Can we extend the definition of $\exp(z) \,$ to complex numbers z? Yes, in an infinite number of ways, but if we want the reasonable assumption that it too is infinitely differentiable, then there is only one way to extend $\exp(z)$.

That’s amazing!

The resulting function $\exp(z)$ obeys all the expected laws of exponents. And we can prove that the function when restricted to reals has an inverse for the entire real number line. So define a new function $\ln(x)$ which is the inverse of $\exp(x)$. Then we can prove that $\ln(x)$ obeys all of the laws of logarithms.

Or we could proceed in the reverse order instead. Define $\ln(x) = \int_1^x \frac{1}{t} dt$. It has an inverse, which we can call $\exp(x)$, and then we can define $a^b$ as $\exp ( b \ln (a))$. We can prove that $\exp(1)$ is the above-mentioned limit, and when this new definition of $a^b\,$ is restricted to the appropriate rationals or reals or integers, we have the same function of two variables a and b as above. $\ln(x)$ can also be extended to the complex domain, except the result is no longer a function, or rather it is a function from complex numbers to sets of complex numbers. All the numbers in a given set differ by some integer multiple of

[1] $2 \pi i$.

With either definition of $\exp(z)$, Euler’s famous formula can be proven:

[2] $\exp(\pi i) + 1 = 0$.

But where’s the circle that gives rise to the $\pi$ in [1] and [2]? The answer is easy to see if we establish another formula to which Euler’s name is also attached:

[3] $\exp(i z) = \sin (z) + i \cos(z)$.

Thus complex numbers unify two of the most frequent natural phenomena: exponential growth and periodic motion. In the complex plane, the exponential is a circular function.

That’s amazing!

Here’s a second example appropriate for my story. Define the function on integers $\text{factorial (n)} = n!$ in the usual way. Now ask whether there is a way to extend it to (some of) the complex plane, so that we can take the factorial of a complex number. There is, and as with $\exp(z)$, there is only one way if we require that the resulting function be infinitely differentiable. The resulting function is (almost) called Gamma, written $\Gamma$. I say almost, because the function that we want has the following property:

[4] $\Gamma (z - 1) = z!$

Obviously, we’d like to stay away from negative values on the real line, where the meaning of (–5)! is not at all clear. In fact, if we stay in the half-plane where complex numbers have a positive real part, we can define $\Gamma$ by an integral which agrees with the factorial function for positive integer values of z:

[5] $\Gamma (z) = \int_0^\infty \exp(-t) t^{z - 1} dt$.

If we evaluate $\Gamma (\frac{1}{2})$ we discover that the result is $\sqrt{\pi}$.

In other words,

[6] $\pi = \Gamma(\frac{1}{2})^2$.

Pi are indeed square.

That’s amazing!

I suspect that the $\pi$ arises because there is an exponential function in the definition of $\Gamma$, but in other problems involving $\pi$ it’s harder to find where the $\pi$ comes from. Euler’s Basel problem is a good case in point. There are many good proofs that

$1 + \frac{1}{2^2} + \frac{1}{3^2} + \frac{1}{4^2} + ... = \frac{\pi^2}{6}$

One proof uses trigonometric series, so you shouldn’t be surprised that $\pi$ shows up there too.

$\pi$ comes up in probability in Buffon’s needle problem because the needle is free to land with any angle from north.

Can you think of a place where $\pi$ occurs, but you cannot find the circle?

George Lakoff and Rafael Núñez have written a controversial book that bolsters the argument that you won’t find any such examples: Where Mathematics Comes From. But Platonist that I am, I maintain that there might be such places.

# The Important Theorems Are the Beautiful Ones

Dr. Gene Chase guest blog author here again.

What makes a math theorem important?

The usual answer is that it is either beautiful or useful. If like me you think that being useful is a beautiful thing, then important theorems are the beautiful ones.

But what makes a theorem beautiful? For example, why is the Theorem of Pythagoras widely regarded as beautiful: $a^2 + b^2 = c^2$ and a, b, and c are not 0 if and only if a, b, and c are the sides of a right triangle? (OK, break into small groups and discuss this among yourselves! An answer appears at the bottom of this post.)

But the theorem 1223334444 = 1223334443 + 1 is not beautiful, won’t you agree?

If the theorem is geometric, we can appeal to visual beauty. For example, three circles pairwise tangent have a beautiful property that is animated here.

But beautiful theorems do not have to be geometric. Numbers are beautiful. For example, Euclid’s theorem that there are an infinity of primes is beautiful. No one has been able to draw a beautiful picture about that, although people have tried from astronomer and mathematician Eratosthenes in 200 BC to science fiction writer and mathematician Stanislaw Ulam in 1963.

For $15 you can have a mathematical theorem named after you. But I can guarantee that it won’t be beautiful. So if you want a theorem named after you, give Mr. Chase the$15 instead and he’ll find one for you. Don’t use 1223334444 = 1223334443 + 1. I claim that as “Dr. Gene Chase’s theorem.”

Answer to discussion question above: Most folks say that a beautiful theorem has to be “deep,” which is just a metaphor for “having many connections to many other things.” For example, the Theorem of Pythagoras has to do with areas, not squares specifically. The semicircle on the hypotenuse of a right triangle has an area equal to the sum of the areas of the semicircles on the adjacent sides. And so for any three similar figures.

Do you remember the joy that you feel when you first learned that two of your friends are also friends of each other? That’s the joy that a mathematician feels when she discovers that the Theorem of Pythagoras and the Theorem of Euclid are intimate with each other. But I’ll leave that connection to another post.

Math is about surprising connections. Which is to say, it’s about beauty.

# Math in the News

Here are a few recent things I’ve come across I thought everyone might enjoy:

Okay, I think you’re all caught up on the math world :-).

# The Foundations of Math, For the Layperson

There’s a nice article on the foundations of mathematics in the NY Times this week. It’s a series by Steven Stragatz that will continue over the next couple weeks. I may post again as other articles come out.