Math for laughs all in author's equation

By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, October 16, 2005

This is what Edward Burger's seventh-grade report card said: "Eddie is a nice boy, but he'll never do well in arithmetic."

It seems funny to him now. But at the time it was yet another wounding in the long-running math trauma inflicted upon America's elementary and middle-school students, particularly girls.

"I hate the fact that math phobia is so common in our kids. I've made it my mission to try to rid students of that fear," said Burger, 41, professor of mathematics and department chair at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.

He's the co-author of a new book, "Coincidences, Chaos, and All That Math Jazz" (Norton; 288 pages; $24.95), which is aimed at a general audience and describes its purpose as "making light of weighty ideas."

Burger, who worked briefly as a stand-up comic while earning his doctorate in mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin, will bring an entertaining and lighthearted discussion of lofty concepts such as infinity, the fourth dimension and randomness. He visits the University at Albany on Tuesday for the Writers Institute's fall writers series.

"If the sight of an equation makes you ill, this talk is for you," Burger says at the beginning of each appearance.

Wild imaginations

He poses math-related questions that inquiring minds want to know: "Is it possible to remove a pair of sufficiently stretchable underwear without removing one's pants?"

"I like to make the distinction between arithmetic and mathematics," said Burger, who grew up in Yorktown, Westchester County. "Mathematics can be the home for wild imaginations, where students can learn to think creatively and make extravagant mistakes."

Conversely, arithmetic is rote learning: static, repetitive, task-oriented. "I have trouble to this day with 8 times 7. My skills are medium to poor when it comes to memorizing multiplication tables," he said. "My focus instead is on abstractions and elegant theories."

In academic circles, Burger's specialty is algebraic number theory. He studies the complexity in seemingly simple equations such as the square root of 2, whose decimals do not repeat and stretch on to infinity.

"If you ask other people, they'd probably say I'm a math geek, but I don't see myself that way," he said. "I think this stuff is really cool, relevant and exciting."

Then why, he's asked, are mathematicians depicted as mentally unstable in movies such as "A Beautiful Mind" and "Proof?"

"There are kooky people in math, but in the same proportion of other professions," Burger said. "I don't think there's a connection between insanity and mathematical thinking. At least I hope not, or I'm in trouble."

Comedy gigs

Burger has a high-pitched cackle. He laughs at his own jokes, a holdover from his days doing stand-up at the Laff Stop Comedy Club in Austin in the late-1980s.

"Most audience members had gone well beyond their three-drink minimum. It was a tough crowd," said Burger, whose material played off math nerd stereotypes.

Still, he had the chops to get noticed by Jay Leno's staff. Burger was paid $50 for every joke Leno bought for his monologue as a permanent guest host at the time for Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show." He figures he earned in the mid-three figures.

"My dream was to be a comedy writer, and if I would have gotten a call from 'The Tonight Show,' I would have quit graduate school and gone right out to L.A.," Burger said. As it happened, the joke writing fell off and math became ascendant.

"As a professor, I'm basically performing three times a week. I like to be funny and to make my students laugh," he said.

In addition to his math courses, Burger also teaches a comedy writing class in the short winter study program at Williams.

Detour into numbers

Burger didn't choose math as a career; it chose him. He had planned, at the urging of his parents, to become a lawyer. Then he took a detour into numbers.

His late father, a professional photographer, and his mother, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Colonie, never quite understood his fascination with math.

"I'd tell them what types of theorems I was working on in grad school, and they couldn't quite comprehend where I was coming from," he said.

The Mathematical Association of American has honored Burger with several writing and teaching awards, and he's the author of three math textbooks.

For his latest book, Burger collaborated with University of Texas at Austin math professor Michael Starbird.

They sent the manuscript back and forth via e-mail -- editing, rewriting and adding to each other's prose. They later read the entire book out loud to each other on speaker phone. "If it didn't read well or sound quite right, we reworked it on the spot," Burger said.

In the book and in his classes, Burger has a difficult task in offering an antidote to math phobia.

"I guess I'm trying to get people to eat their mathematical broccoli," he said. "The way I serve it though, it's not overcooked and it's covered with a ton of cheese."

As opposed to, say, cheesy. To review: about those stretchy underwear and removing them while wearing pants? The answer, according to Burger, is yes.

Paul Grondahl may be reached at 454-5623 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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Edward Burger