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Education: Mathematics for Mits

3 minute read

T. C. Mits (standing for The Celebrated Man in the Street) is a fellow with an ordinary-sized head living in an outsize universe. The Education of T. C. Mits (Hugh Gray Lieber and Lillian R. Lieber; W. W. Norton; $2.50) is a book which tries to tell him something about modern mathematics. While nowhere near as solid as Lancelot Hogben’s famed Mathematics for the Million, it is one of the liveliest and most ornamental of the mathematics popularizers. The chief moral pointed by the authors is .that things are not always what they seem, so watch your thinking.

T. C. Mits, for example, is apt to trip over the first problems posed:

¶ Which job pays best after the first year: (a) one with an annual salary of $1,000 and a $200 annual increase; or (b) one with a semiannual salary of $500 and a semiannual raise of $50?

¶ If a paper napkin is .003 inches thick and such napkins are piled up, starting with one, then adding two, then adding four and doubling the new batch 32 times in all, will the pile finally be one foot high? Or will it be as high as the ceiling? Or will it be as high as the Empire State Building?

¶ Suppose the equator (about 25,000 miles long) were a steel band and it were cut open at one point and an additional piece ten feet long spliced in. Would the space created between the equator and the earth be large enough for a six-footer to walk through, a man to crawl through or a piece of tissue paper to be slipped through?

A bit of simple mathematical calculation in each case gives the right answer. The Liebers go on to discuss more complicated questions, such as the relation of mathematical philosophers to practical inventors. For example, practical Marconi had to get the idea that a wireless message might be sent before he could figure how to do it. He got the idea from Hertz’s demonstration of the existence of electromagnetic waves. And Hertz got the idea of looking for such waves from Clerk Maxwell, who got his idea from working with the calculus. And the calculus was invented long before by Newton, who was an abstract, not a practical thinker.

Mr. & Mrs. Mathematician. The Liebers, who teach mathematics at New York’s Long Island University, have a fine time explaining elementary things about Boolian algebra, non-Euclidean geometry and the fourth dimension. The reader is likely to share their gusto, even if he can not agree that “science and mathematics . . . can be a veritable defense against ALL evil. . . .”

Mr. Lieber is balding and plump, Mrs. Lieber middle-aged and kindly. He comes from Missouri, she from Russia. Albert Einstein and other top-flight savants like to read what the Liebers write. At Long Island University they have founded the Galois Institute of Mathematics,* to which the greatest U.S. mathematicians contribute expositions of their favorite subjects in what they hope is simple English.

* Named for France’s Evariste Galois, ranked among the 25 greatest mathematicians in history, who developed the theory of groups and algebraic equations before dying in a duel at the age of 21.

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