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He preaches the gospel according to Archimedes

October 29, 2001
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us
Enterprise staff writer

Sherman Stein, a retired UC Davis math professor, has a new career writing books about math.

"Yes, I'm trying to make the beauty of math available to the public, I want to spread the gospel," he said in a recent interview. His latest book is "How the Other Half Thinks: Adventures in Mathematical Reasoning" (McGraw Hill, 2001).

By reading this book, he says, the reader will have a chance to see what mathematics is really like and will therefore understand why someone might make a career out of it. He says no advanced math is required to understand his book or the concepts.

Stein says he knew from an early age that he would be a mathematician.

"When I was 6 I liked arithmetic and Einstein was very famous and my last name was similar. And I had very curly hair. I said: 'Gee this is fun.'

"I liked the idea that you could get a correct answer unlike other subjects that were so subjective you never knew when you had a right answer. I kept enjoying it and it was easy for me, but I worked hard of course."

Stein grew up in Minneapolis and at age 10 his family moved to West Hollywood. At 17, he went to Caltech where he was a math major. Even at that age Stein knew that he wanted to teach math.

Stein met the woman who would become his wife, Hannah, when he went to Columbia University in New York for graduate school. She was attending Barnard, right across the street.

"I went to a club and met her within one month of arriving in New York City," he said. "Four years later we were married. It was altogether too simple."

And he ended up teaching math for 40 years at UCD. He arrived in 1953 when the campus was expanding and retired in 1993.

Hannah is a well-known poet. How do a poet and a mathematician get along in terms of creativity?

"They are very similar," said Stein. "In fact one of my hobbies is writing poetry and that was one of our common interests when we met. In both cases you try to get at the truth, you have to be flexible, you have to be willing to criticize your own work. I don't see any contradiction between the two."

Math is flexible?

"Oh, yes, when you're creating new mathematics and you're trying to solve a problem that no one has worked on or solved and one attack fails you've got to be flexible and not just give up but come back and attack.

"You have to make more experiments, think of other things you know that might be related, it's very creative, very exciting. It's like exploring in the Amazon, no one has ever been there before you, you are working on virgin territory when you're doing research."

But Stein admits that there are people who aren't quite so excited about math. He doesn't think math detractors suffer from a mental block; rather, they have probably missed out on good, basic teaching.

"It happens way back in fourth or fifth grade where a teacher is not explaining anything. Mathematics is a huge structure and it starts with addition and multiplication. If you don't learn multiplication you're going to have trouble with fractions, and if you don't learn fractions, goodbye algebra and without algebra you're not going to learn trigonometry, etc. It's all one big structure and if you miss something you have to go back."

Stein enjoyed his many years teaching. When he describes his attitude toward teaching, you're not surprised to hear that he won the Distinguished Teaching Award.

"Teaching is psychological," he said. "In all cases you are facing a psychological problem. You don't just cover the material, you are trying to relate it to human beings and they think in many different ways. I never got bored as a result. I taught for 40 years and enjoyed it all the time."

Now he is a writer. His first book is "Strength in Numbers," his second book was about Archimedes (died 212 BC) and was designed to be accessible to the busy mathematician and math-literate high school students. The title is "Archimedes: What Did He do Beside Cry Eureka?"

He talks about beautiful, amazing equations and can lose a math-illiterate listener quickly.

But his books are designed to win recalcitrant people over.

"I'm not asking my readers to become mathematicians," he said. "But just like poetry ought to be part of their lives and music of any form, mathematics should be something. I decided that this book ("How the Other Half Thinks") would use nothing beyond arithmetic and common sense. I picked out eight topics from advanced mathematics and took a long time to write it in such a way that it could be understood."

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Bogey's Books at discounted prices [ Click Here ]

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