Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Problem Solved

Dean, with his book, and friends.

Math has always been mysterious - at least in my world. Solutions and logic play hide and seek with me. So, when I heard that one of our students wrote a book about math, my ears went on full alert. Wow, right?
Here's Dean's story:

When I was younger, and just beginning to be enthralled by mathematics, I read a quotation attributed to Einstein which has fascinated me ever since, “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” With this maxim, Einstein described perfectly the power of mathematical problem-solving – the ability to distill very complex scientific questions into simple problems with even simpler solutions, and to balance beautiful mathematical problems between recalcitrance and resolution, depending on the ingenuity of the problem solver.               

          I began reading math books in 4th or 5th grade, and became instantly enamored of the subject for both its elegance and harmony, as well as the rigor of problem-solving. My driving force was the distinctive “Aha!” feeling when I could see the critical insight that could make a complex problem comprehensible and solvable. Even more motivating than the glory of solving a problem, however, was the failure to do so. I found myself enjoying the words “How could I miss that!?” more than the word “Aha!”

          So thrilling were these feelings to me that I started to collect and even develop problems where clever intuition was key. Whenever a friend asked me why I enjoyed math as much as I do, I would use one of these problems to demonstrate the grace that I found in turning something that seems so complicated into something simple through just one or two critical insights. I could even sometimes see that I was able to excite a friend by the concept or an example, where they had previously claimed to lack either proficiency in, or appreciation for, mathematics. For all the thrill that came from working problems myself, even more exciting was being able to spread that enthusiasm for mathematics to my friends, and early in high school, I wrote a book titled Wearing Gauss’s Jersey to that exact end – to introduce those who claimed to be non-mathematicians to the ideas of problem-solving through mathematical insights, the sorts of insights for which “rockstars” such as Carl Friedrich Gauss was so famous.  Although there were many wonderful problem-solving books, I had yet to encounter a book devoted to just this topic.  

          Needless to say, the adage that a writer learns more than he teaches turned out to be true for me.  The journey of writing a book – of taking an idea from origin to fruition, of convincing a leading publisher that the idea had enough merit to justify taking a chance on a high school kid, and of then actually vindicating that publisher’s trust with a coherent work – has certainly been the most amazing of my young life.  I came to realize that such a project required not only paying attention to coherence of content, but to aesthetics of style – having something worthwhile to say, and then writing it in such a way that it is worth someone else’s while to read.  The whole of this process was not just different in degree, but essentially different in kind, from any challenge I had yet undertaken.  Moreover, I came to appreciate just how much tenacity was needed to see that challenge through.  Several times, I had to resist the urge to quit in the middle of the demanding process of writing, revising, and then writing again. Each of those times, however, those feelings were overwhelmed by reminders as to why I was writing the book in the first place. For example, in the process of developing and solving some problems for the book, I found a hidden relationship between two problems in discrete mathematics that seemed entirely separate.  That discovery led to an entirely new approach to another old problem, that of summing the squares. It was moments like these – moments in which I realized that writing served only to deepen my appreciation for what I was writing about – that allowed me to see the challenge through, and to refute the justification that I had already passed the point of diminishing returns on the expended effort.  In short, I came to understand Hemingway’s blithe wisdom when he expressed how much of a person goes into their writing, “There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter, and bleed.”   That, perhaps, is the most profound insight of all.

-Dean Hathout; class of 2016.

Readers: Dean's book, Wearing Gauss’s Jersey  is on display in the author's section, downstairs in the Chandramohan Library.