Friday, May 15, 2009
“I was brought up in southern California and my father taught mathematics, physics and astronomy at a community college and he would bring mathematical and physics problems to the dinner table,” he said. “My brother and I talked about them.
“Mathematics was just a part of daily life. In fact, I often look back on that experience and realize how unusual and significant it was. That it made mathematics something that wasn’t confined to a classroom and it wasn’t something you thought about just in the confines of school. But instead it was something that was part of your regular existence. My brother also has a Ph.D. in mathematics, from Berkeley.”
That math is “part of your regular existence” has been a theme of Starbird’s career.
In classes, books and lectures Starbird tries to demystify math. And it’s not just the basics. He wants people to understand the big ideas of math.
Starbird came to that conclusion while developing a class for Plan II students.
“I realized that what we should be doing,” he said, “is taking great ideas of mathematics and making them accessible to these students just as they see the greatest philosophy and they read the greatest literature and they hear the greatest music. They should be exposed to the greatest mathematics not just the first few steps of a ladder they will never climb, which is the typical philosophy of mathematics instruction.”
He’s written two books in that vein with Edward Burger, a mathematics professor at Williams College. They are “The Heart of Mathematics: An invitation to effective thinking” and “Coincidences, Chaos, and All That Math Jazz: Making Light of Weighty Ideas.”