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Professor brings magic touch to math

Math is many things to many people: a chore, a nightmare, a useful tool, a satisfying challenge.

For Harvey Mudd professor Arthur Benjamin, however, it’s something far more enchanting. He sees math as an endlessly surprising and elegant pursuit, and he wants you to see it the same way.

He will go to any length to spread the gospel of numbers, performing lighting-fast mental calculations, cracking jokes and solving seemingly unrelated equations in which he guesses each audience member’s answer, regardless of the digits, because they are all the same.

He dazzles classrooms and crowds as well as digital audiences. More than seven million people have tuned in to Mr. Benjamin’s 2005 TED talk, “A performance of Mathemagic.”

Last month, he released a book called The Magic of Math: Solving for x and Figuring out Why. 

“I’m happy to say people like it so far,” Mr. Benjamin said.

The book includes equations that can be seen as parlor tricks or epiphanies, depending on your mindset, as well as explorations of areas of math that are a virtual playground for mathematicians. These include things like Fibonacci numbers and numerals like 9, which sound quite ordinary, but have remarkable properties.

“If math is taught right, it’s beautiful, it’s fun, it’s magical. That’s what I’ve tried to write about in the book,” Mr. Benjamin said. “With all the emphasis on testing these days and the focus on a smaller body of material, what often gets cut out are the fun topics.”

The Magic of Math is aimed at a pretty wide demographic.

“My target audience for this book is anyone who will someday need to take a math course, is currently taking a math course, or is finished taking math courses,” Mr. Benjamin writes in the introduction. “I want this book to be enjoyed by everyone, from math-phobics to math-lovers.”

Clearly, Mr. Benjamin falls in the latter category. He fell in love with mathematics as well as the art of sleight-of-hand early on. Done well, he says, both pursuits engender a sense of wonder. “A magician wants the audience to go ‘Ooh!’ and ‘Ah!’ A mathematician wants the audience to say ‘Cool!’ and Why?”

Mr. Benjamin, who grew up in Ohio, has enjoyed playing with numbers for as long as he can remember. In fourth grade, he came across a book by Martin Gardner, a longtime contributor to Scientific American and author of some 200 books, many on the subject of recreational math. He was entranced.

“He was the original mathemagician,” Mr. Benjamin said. “He has probably influenced more mathematicians than anyone else in the 21st century.”

Mr. Gardner would one day write a positive review for Mr. Benjamin’s 2006 book Secrets of Mental Math, calling it “The clearest, simplest, most entertaining, and best book yet on the art of calculating in your head.”

Secrets of Mental Math has the endorsement of the reading public, having sold more than 200,000 copies. Still, getting the stamp of approval from Mr. Gardner represents one of the penultimate moments of Mr. Benjamin’s career. “He’s been an idol and mentor of mine. It was a dream come true that Martin would review and enjoy my book.” 

Life wasn’t all equations for Mr. Benjamin. As “a hyperactive kid who liked to show off,” he found an interest in magic. In high school, he performed magic shows at kids’ birthday parties under the moniker “The Great Benjamini.”

As he began doing shows for older crowds, his dad suggested he show off his calculating prowess, putting some math problems into the show. He got a positive reaction and things took off from there.

In 1989, Mr. Benjamin moved to California to teach at Harvey Mudd College. He is currently teaching a class on probability and another on the mathematics of games and puzzles. The knowledge he imparts has myriad real-life applications, including calculating the optimal strategy for a game of black jack.

“My course does not endorse gambling, but if you do gamble, you may as well be smart about it,” he says.

If you’re an ambitious magician, there’s one place you gravitate to—the elite Los Angeles venue The Magic Castle. Mr. Benjamin auditioned there, earned a spot and has performed there every year since. In fact, he and his wife Deena were married at The Magic Castle in 1993. The couple has two daughters, Laurel, 16, and Ariel, 13, who attends El Roble.

During a recent interview, Mr. Benjamin took a moment to impress the COURIER with some of his mental machinations. He asked for a random birthday—July 17, 1974—and determined in seconds that the date fell on a Wednesday. It checked out.

Things have changed a lot at Harvey Mudd since Mr. Benjamin first began to teach there. When he started, the ratio of men to women “was more than three to one—it was something like pi to one,” he said.

“The girls used to have an expression when it came to finding a guy: The odds are good, but the goods are odd,” he joked.

 

Today, the student body at Harvey Mudd is almost 50 percent female and even the school’s president, Maria Klawe, is a woman. The student body is also more ethnically diverse as more students heed the call for an increased emphasis on STEM, subjects like science, technology, engineering and math.

There is a place for those who master them.

“We import a lot of people from other countries to fill our STEM jobs, and these are high-paying jobs,” Mr. Benjamin said. 

He believes it’s time for math-phobes to drop their baggage and embrace the opportunities, and his books are a great start.

“If you can show how math can apply to the real world, and that it can be simple and beautiful, the lightbulb goes off,” he said. “Seeing why something works is a great feeling.”

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com