Editor's Note: Matthew Lane is a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at UCLA and is the founder of Math Goes Pop!, a blog focused on the surprisingly rich intersection between mathematics and popular culture. Follow him on Twitter at @mmmaaatttttt.
There are many misconceptions about mathematicians in popular culture. For example, windows and mirrors do not make for the best writing surfaces, despite what you might assume from "A Beautiful Mind" or "Good Will Hunting."
Mathematicians are also frequently portrayed as painfully socially awkward. And while this is sometimes the case, the true range of personality types is much more varied. Even among the more socially awkward, it is not uncommon for mathematicians to fall in love, marry and start a family.
What must it be like to grow up in a household with a mathematician? In the spirit of Father's Day, I spoke with two mathematicians whose fathers were also mathematicians about what it's like being raised in a mathematical household.
The first thing to know about a mathematical household is that it is not necessarily overtly mathematical.
"Math was always implicitly in everything but rarely explicitly done," said Dr. David Kung, associate professor of mathematics at St. Mary's College of Maryland. His father was a mathematician at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. When mathematics was done, it was placed in an organic context.
"I remember my dad sending me to the corner store to get a loaf of bread when I was 4 or 5," Kung said. "He told me how much the bread would be, gave me a couple of dollars and asked how much change I should get. I wanted to do math because my parents always put me in positions where doing math was useful and fun."
This was not the only situation in which mathematics arose naturally.
"When I was 6, my parents bought some land and a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome kit," he continued. "For the next year, we (and other members of the Math Department) worked to build our house. Looking back, it was an outrageously educational experience. I learned oodles of math and physics, but the most important thing I learned is that you can make something work if you take basic principles and understand how the parts are connected. That's a fairly abstract concept, but it applies to most of the math I've ever done."
Though the math may not have always been explicit, education itself was highly valued.
"Education was always important," he said. "That was clear from both of my parents. In fact, my mom pushed a little harder on the school part of education. My dad concentrated more on learning."
Dr. Heather Lewis, professor of mathematics at Nazareth College in New York, echoed this sentiment. "Education was, without question, viewed as important: My dad has a Ph.D. in math, and my mom a master's degree in Japanese, and both read a lot," she said. "When I was in elementary school, my mom took a year of calculus at the university for fun, so there was certainly the notion that learning could be valuable for its own sake, not just as a means to an end."
Growing up in an atmosphere where learning was so beloved and with a free private math tutor always on-hand, perhaps it is easier to avoid the crippling anxiety that forces so many people to abandon math as soon as they can.
"I always loved math," Kung said. "I enjoyed the puzzles, the logical process, the fact that you could get an answer and be certain of it. The way my dad contributed to that was to help me learn how to ask good mathematical questions. It's an aspect of mathematics sadly missing from most curricula: answering questions that you yourself have asked."
While it took Lewis a bit longer to love mathematics, she eventually came around.
"I don't remembering anything about mathematics standing out until fifth grade," she said. "My teacher, Mr. Greenall, gave me a book of pre-algebra to do on my own, and that opened up a whole new world for me: Solving equations, even simple ones, was fantastic. That summer, I sat in on a pre-algebra course at Cal Poly and loved it."
Lewis continued to take math classes at California Polytechnic State University, where her father taught, once the summer ended.
Having her father work at Cal Poly didn't hurt. "My dad didn't push me, but he was there in the background: He knew who my teachers would be, made sure that the logistics were taken care of, and I think kept a pretty close eye on things."
Her father's support was amplified by her mother and her parents' friends and proved to be quite a boon for a woman who wanted a career in such a male-dominated field.
"I know women my age who were told by teachers that men were (always) better at math than women, and I've seen my share of books that only use 'he' when talking about mathematicians in a generic sense," Lewis said. "My father, my mother and all of the other teachers I knew never made those assumptions, however, and looking back, I'm aware both of how my parents tried to make it as easy as possible for me to study and really how supportive people were."
While growing up with a mathematician may involve writing on windows, these two developed even more important skills: a love of learning, early and continued exposure to mathematical thinking, and an understanding that mathematics is about much more than formula memorization.
For any parent, these would certainly be desirable qualities to instill in your children. But how can one begin? How does one even explain what mathematics is about to a young child?
“When I was very young and asked what he did,” Lewis said of her father, “he told me he put Band-aids on numbers.” Not a bad assessment of the job.