The following took place on Monday August 23, 2010 during the 2010 International Congress of Mathematicans (ICM) in Hyderabad, India.

Today was our only day off during the nine-day congress. I ate a healthy breakfast, laced-up my shoes tight, packed an umbrella and embarked on what I thought would be a stimulating but standard day of sightseeing. I took the hour-long bus into the old city, and started walking towards Charminar — a four hundred year-old mosque whose history explains much of Hyderabad’s existence. Everything was going according to plan. After about 3km of walking, a dude on a scooter pulled up next to me, from behind, and asked where I was from. This guy had a RED BEARD and long hair! “Red” flags were obviously set off. I told him the USA and turned around to start walking again. I am a seasoned backpacker and have lot’s of experience brushing-off crazies. However, this guy spoke perfect accent-less English and asked me what I do for a living. The question struck me as odd so I told him I am a mathematician. He asked if I was in Hyderabad for the ICM. Okay, he obviously wasn’t completely insane. We talked for a bit and despite the fact that he was nerve-rackingly attracted to me and undeniably sketchy, he posed an interesting proposition. He invited me to spend the day teaching mathematics to schoolchildren in the area. I have spontaneously done similar things in the past, and I consider myself to be a talented judge of character so I vetted him for a few minutes and became confident his proposition was legitimate. I asked him how often he does this, where the last person he picked-up was from, which school we will go to first, the name of the principle there, where he lives, how he makes money, etc. I used to play poker, so I applied the tricks I learned for reading people’s honesty and checked for common tells, such as momentarily glancing away before telling a lie. Furthermore, he was quite small and his scooter had at most a 50cc engine, so I felt confident that I could either tackle him or roll off the back of his bike if things got out of hand. Anyways, some of the best days of my life started similarly and teaching mathematics is always rewarding, so I set off with him around 9:45am.

I just got back after 13 hours with this creep — my first impression was solidified over the course of the day. However, I spoke to over 200 students in half a dozen classes at three schools. The kids ran the gamut in every sense of the word. One school was incredibly poor and in the boondocks an hour out of Hyderabad, one was a rich international school and the other was somewhere in between. At one point, my new friend “VV” drove his scooter through a mountain of cow dung while he was looking over his shoulder to tell me a disturbingly profane story. I got SPLATTERED! With regards to the story, this was not the only one of this kind that he told me, but I didn’t want to offend him while sitting on the back of his scooter in rural India. We ate a delicious south Indian feast for lunch at one of the schools. We had the Hyderabad Ramadan special cuisine of Haleem for an afternoon snack. Feasted on the equally famous Hyderabad Biryani for dinner. The latter two didn’t live up to the hype, but were still enjoyable. I was the main attraction in a Hindi prayer session accompanied by about 300 people, including over a hundred dancing children. I was given countless trinkets. I gave a high-five to a guy while we were each speeding along on scooters because he had an awesome custom scooter horn. Speaking of scooters, I spent at least four hours on the back of VV’s. I saw more than I ever could have hoped to. The roads are a disaster for daily driving, but have a nice scooter party vibe going on — a nightmare for residents, but amusing for tourists.

Now I will change gears and describe a bit about my teaching. As things turned out, I met with the principals of each of the schools before entering their classrooms. I asked them what they would like me to lecture about and for any advice they could share. They each immediately mentioned their student’s fear of math and unanimously requested that I try to dispel this bugaboo. Obviously, this is an impossible task on the whole — I still regularly fear math — but I decided my best approach was to talk about the relevance of math through modern applications. Also, I am a firm believer in the Socratic method, so I questioned the kids as much as possible. I started by introducing myself in a self-deprecating way and with a big smile, I wanted the students to feel at ease. I then challenged the students with a question: “why does society pay mathematicians — what service do they provide?” No one answered, so I asked: “do you pay me because I am good at adding up really big numbers?” A couple of kids smiled, but the room was cold. I then asked similar questions about doctors. I refused to move on until someone answered. The ice was broken and I queried the room about rickshaw drivers and engineers. The point of this exercise was to stoke the student’s curiosity. At least a couple were now engaged — they had the question running through their minds: “why DO we pay mathematicians?” As an aside, I sincerely believe that our lot would be well served by increasing the number of people able to answer this question. Anyways, I proceeded differently depending upon the age group, but I generally described a couple modern applications of math. I told the students I wanted to draw a picture and asked them for suggestions. Again, no one would answer, but I refused to move on. I believe these types of exercises re-engage the audience. I then described how you could break up my pathetically drawn mountain landscape, that we settled upon, into a grid, where each entry has a gray-scale value. I then tried to explain how you could detect the boundary between sky and mountains by finding the largest vertical differences. Obviously I explained this more carefully to the students. I asked them what music they like and then told them about recommendation algorithms. I tried my luck at describing SLE through a pool analogy: “Imagine there is a big swimming pool filled with water. There is a freezing pump on one side. The pool freezes on this side, but has not yet frozen all the way across. What will the boundary look like between liquid water and ice?” This type of understanding allows us to make computer monitors and plasma TVs. With the oldest students, who were 14-15, I even attempted to explain the significance of the prime number theorem, and that in some sense it shows that “Shiva did not play games with us when creating the numbers.” (This school was administered by Hindu priests, so I felt the religious metaphor was appropriate. ) To do so, I talked about how many years ago people only used “small” numbers. There were no millionaires or computers. People were concerned with simple quantities. Most would not have intuition for the differences between millions and billions. Similarly, today, we do not have intuition for the differences between 10^100 and 10^103 — but someday people might. To conclude the analogy, the prime number theorem astonishingly says that numbers too big for us to ever encounter are somehow well-behaved. I am sure very little of this math stuck, but I believe I sparked at least a couple of kid’s imaginations. All-in-all, I believe the kids enjoyed themselves and have stories of a crazy American to bond over. Importantly, I also managed to depart from VV in an untraceable way.

August 25, 2010 at 5:24 pm |

you have giant pelotas young man.

ya da man