I really enjoy reading J. Michael Shaughnessy’s column. He’s the president of the NCTM and always has interesting, timely things to say about math and math education. Here’s an excerpt from this week’s column, where he recounts his recent conversation with Senator Al Franken (D-Minn) as he eagerly shared a proof with President Shaughnessy. Go check it out!
Seen Any Good Proofs Lately? Raising the Social Currency of Mathematics
We all probably have had a friend or acquaintance, or even a perfect stranger, raving about a book she has just read, or a movie he has recently seen, and then saying, “Oh, you must read this book!” or, “You must see that film!” But how many of us have had this kind of experience in a social occasion where the person exclaimed, “Oh, you must see this proof!” So it was indeed refreshing to meet someone who really likes mathematics, as I did several weeks ago, in what might seem like a very unlikely setting—the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C.
On Wednesday mornings when Congress is in session, Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) holds a breakfast gathering in his office for his constituents. Visitors to the breakfast consist primarily of people from Minnesota, but I received an invitation from a mathematics teacher who is spending the year working on the senator’s staff. A famous hearty porridge is served up at these breakfasts, and once guests have begun to circulate, Senator Franken drops in and greets everyone. I had been misinformed and thought that the Senator had been a mathematics major in college. When I asked him about this, he said that the rumor was false, but he agreed that his good grades in math had probably helped him get admitted to college.
After breakfast, the visitors were escorted to a terrace area in the hallway outside the office, where the senator spoke for a few minutes about events being debated in Congress and answered questions. Guests then lined up to have their pictures taken with the senator. I was at the end of the line, and as I shook his hand and introduced myself as the president of NCTM, he said, “Let me show you my geometric proof of the Pythagorean theorem!” Senator Franken then proceeded to grab scratch paper and a pen from one of his staffers and plopped down cross-legged on the hallway carpet. As I sat next to him, he began to sketch out his proof. He explained what he was doing, and why it worked, and I paraphrased each move he made so that it was clear to both of us how he was thinking and what he was doing.