Review: Marvels of Math by kendall haven

Marvels of Math: Fascinating Reads and Awesome Activities by Kendall Haven. Haven is a nationally recognized master storyteller and the author of numerous books, including Marvels of Math, Write Right!, and Close Encounters with Deadly Dangers. A former research scientist, he is based in Fulton, California.

Book Description: When did the concept of zero originate? Who discovered negative numbers? How were algebraic equations first created? These answers and more are all here. Each story has a list of terms to learn, related discussion questions, and experiments and activities that amplify the story's math theme.

Excerpt from Introduction: Mathematics has evolved to meet specific human problem-solving needs. People created every bit of our number and math systems. They invented it. They created the math that they needed to solve everyday, practical problems and to describe everyday, real-world phenomena--from the first invention of whole numbers to describe the members of groups to the recent development of chaos theory and surreal numbers. Even more exciting, new math concepts and approaches are still being discovered and invented. For example, surreal numbers, a nifty way to count beyond infinity, were invented in 192. Much of the math learned over your lifetime is less than one hundred years old. Likely as not, some math that you will learn and use has not yet been created.

Math is a language, a language used by science. Math is a short-hand version of English. A formula is much shorter and easier to write than English. More than any other field math development is a group effort. We teach the math and ignore the fascinating people and stories associated with the development of the field. Mention math and story in the same sentence and most people shudder in terror, thinking of the dreaded math story problem. (If John and Carol meet in Chicago, and John leaves Denver at 8 am on a train at 60 mph .) Those are not stories.

But there is another type of math story. These stories are gripping, fascinating, and illuminate the development, history and purpose of our modern math tools and concepts. These historical stories concern the real-life drama of the development of math and of the mathematicians who invented it. Any topic, math included, becomes more accessible and understandable when we tell the human story behind the development topic. Stories make subjects real and purposeful. They create context and relevance. They provide a foundation from which students can understand and appreciate math, rather than merely memorize a series of rote exercises.

This book focuses on significant developments in mathematics history. However, all stories are about characters, not concepts, and these stories are no exception. The stories are here because they tell about characters at the moment of significant developments in math concepts and principals upon which we depend on every day. The stories are divided into four groups: the development of our number system, the development of geometry, the development of mathematical concepts and applications and the development of devices to aid in mathematical computations.

Each story is historically accurate as available research permitted. If I found quotes recorded in diaries or letters, I used them for dialog. Otherwise, I inferred dialog from known personality traits, written accounts, the mathematician's writings and essays, and from known interactions and events. To the extent that I could reasonably establish the emotional states of the personality, I used the knowledge to bring the character to life.

The book has 16 chapters. Each chapter has 4 sections:

At a Glance - Brief overview of the history of the concept.

Terms to Know - List of math terms with definitions.

Story - The story is told.

Follow-On Questions and Activities

Excerpt from Chapter 5, Elementary Elements - The Invention of Euclidean Geometry by Euclid in 295 BC

"Twenty-year-old Theoclese (THEE-oh-kleez) raced into his family's small house at the edge of their grain fields. This year's crops were planted. Green shoots sprouted everywhere repainting the dark brown dirt of their upper Nile Valley farm soft green. "Father! Father! I know what I must do."

"Do? You mean tomorrow morning when we start weeding?"

"No father, it's the most wonder book imaginable." Theoclese had dropped to his knees, his hands resting on his father's thigh as he pleaded. "It's The Elements. Euclid explains everything about mathematics and geometry. I want to go to Alexandria.I have to go to Alexandria to study with Euclid."

Dentus tensed, his body rigid with shock, his voice now barely a whisper. "Alexandria is over thirty leagues away. You'd never be able to journey there, talk with this Euclid fellow, and be back to help run the farm."

Thoeclese's voice now sounded stronger, more resolute. "No, father. I must leave the farm and become a full-time student at the Alexandria Museum. I must."

As if frozen in a stone etching the two remained motionless while this revelation slowly washed over and through the father. Finally Dentus' hand crept forward to rest on his son's shoulder. Dentus slowly shook his head, still bewildered by Theoclese's words. "My son, a mathematician. Who could have guessed?"

Reviewed July 23, 2004 by Tuesdayon the LivingMathForum, shared with permission.