Talking prime numbers with kids

Saw this tweet from Steven Strogatz last night:

Glancing through the book I was happy to see that it seemed to be written for a general audience. So, with nothing already played for today’s Family Math talk with the boys I thought we’d use the book for today’s project.

The first thing I did was do a quick introduction to the book. The boys have heard Barry Mazur’s name before from his “Blob Pythagorean Theorem” video:



Here’s that project:

Using Numberphile’s “Blob Pythagorean Theorem” video in a lesson

They’ve also seen Riemann’s name in a prior 3D printing project where we played with some 3d printed Riemann sums:

3d printing and calculus concepts for kids

So, to start the project I wanted to remind them that they’ve seen some of the names before and that they also already knew a little bit about prime numbers. I’d asked each of them to pick a section from the table of contents that they wanted to study. My older son picked “questions about primes” and my younger son picked “music files and prime numbers.”



First up was my older son’s choice – questions about primes. We looked at the first page of this section which mentioned several easy-to-state unsolved problems about prime numbers. We went through a few examples of each one and then I gave them a challenge problem – these examples give a great opportunity for kids to talk about math:



After that we moved to the section about “music files and prime numbers.” Unfortunately from the point of view of taking about primes, this section is setting up the next few sections on spectral theory – so no primes here. However, this section was still pretty interesting all by itself. It is a basic introduction to Fourier analysis and the kids enjoyed it. While we talked about the section on camera we even played a few notes on the piano. The video below shows how a 4th grader and a 6th grader explain Fourier analysis 🙂



This project was really fun. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about how to share math that is interesting to research mathematicians with kids. Some of those ideas are in this post from last week:

Amazing Math from Mathematicians to share with kids

Larry Guth’s “no rectangles” problem was a huge hit with the 2nd and 3rd graders at Family Math night at my younger son’s school. I’m going to try a project on the Surreal Numbers with the 4th and 5th graders next week. So, with all that as background, it was nice to see another great resource from mathematicians to use to share math with kids.