Sharing Kelsey Houston-Edward’s complex number video with kids

I didn’t have anything planned for our math project today, but both kids asked if there was a new video from Kelsey Houston-Edwards! Why didn’t I think of that 🙂

The latest video is about the pantograph and complex numbers:

Here’s what the boys thought about the video:

They boys were interested in the pantograph and also complex numbers. We started off by talking about how the pantograph works. With a bit more time to prepare (and probably a bit more engineering skill than I have), building a simple pantograph would make a really fun introductory geometry project.

Next we talked about complex numbers. We’ve talked about complex number several times before, so the idea wasn’t a new one for the boys. I started from the beginning, though, and tried to echo some of the introductory ideas that Kelsey Houston-Edwards brought up in her video.

To finish up today’s project we looked at some basic geometry of complex numbers. The specific property that we looked at today was multiplying by i. At the end of this short talk I think that the boys had a pretty good understanding of the idea that multiplying by i was the same as rotating by 90 degrees.

Complex numbers are a topic that I think kids will find absolutely fascinating. I don’t know where (if at all) they come into a traditional middle school / high school curriculum, but once you understand the distributive property you can certainly begin to look at complex numbers. It is such a fun topic with many interesting applications and important ideas – many of which are accessible to kids. Just playing around with complex numbers seems like a great way to expose kids to some amazing math.

Sharing John Baez’s “juggling roots” post with kids part 2

Yesterday I saw this incredible tweet from John Baez:

We did one project with some of the shapes this morning:

Sharing John Baez’s “juggling roots” tweet with kids

The tweet links to a couple of blog posts which I’ll link to directly here for ease:

John Baez’s “Juggling Roots” Google+ post

Curiosa Mathematica’s ‘Animation by Two Cubes” post on Tumblr

The Original set of animations by twocubes on Tumblr

Reading a bit in the comment on Baez’s google+ post I saw a reference to the 3d shapes you could make by considering the frames in the various animations to be slices of a 3d shape. I thought it would be fun to show some of those shapes to the boys tonight and see if they could identify which animated gif generated the 3d shape.

This was an incredibly fun project – it is amazing to hear what kids have to say about these complicated (and beautiful) shapes. It is also very fun to hear them reason their way to figuring out which 3d shape corresponds to each gif.

Here are the conversations:

(1)

(2)

(3)

(4)

(5)

(6) As a lucky bonus, the 3d print finished up just as we finished the last video. I thought it would be fun for them to see and talk about that print even though (i) it broke a little bit while it was printing, and (ii) it was fresh out of the printer and still dripping plastic 🙂

The conversations that we’ve had around Baez’s post has been some of the most enjoyable conversations that I’ve had sharing really advanced math – math that is interesting to research mathematicians – with kids. o

A great complex number question from Art of Problem Solving

My son picked a great problem from Art of Problem Solving’s Introduction to Algebra to talk through today:

A lot of people on Twitter thought the problem was fun and many people commented on the difference between a geometric and an algebraic approach.

A geometric approach is beyond my son’s understanding right now, but the algebraic approach has so many great lessons going for it – many more than you think if you aren’t generally around kids working through math problems:

 

After we were done I talked through some of the geometry for just a little bit – I don’t think introducing the geometry solely through this problem is such a great idea, but I wanted to try anyway. Here’s how it went:

 

Finally, as an extra shout out to AoPS – here’s one of my favorite math videos of all time – Richard Rusczyk illustrating how powerful a geometric approach to complex numbers can be with a stunning solution to an old math contest problem:

Frank Farris’s patterns

A couple of weeks ago Evelyn Lamb’s article Impossible Wallpaper and Mystery Curves introduced me to Frank Farris’s work. On Saturday I stumbled on his book at Barnes and Noble:

  

I was excited to try out some of his ideas with the boys even though they use complex numbers and exponentials which are over their heads. We did the whole exploration this morning using Mathematica.

To start, we just explored the exponential function.

Next we moved to looking at sums of two exponential functions. The boys were surprised by the graphs and we played around with a few more examples. They had some interesting ideas about what the pictures looked like, and I’m glad that the pictures also reminded them a little of Anna Weltman’s loop-de-loops.

Next we moved on to sums of three exponential functions motivated by the idea of trying to produce another kink in the loop. There was a little discussion at the beginning of this part of the talk about complex variables. I thought going down this path was going to be too difficult to explain, so I tried to bring the conversation back to the sums. I love the ideas they had about symmetry here.

Next we looked at Farris’s “mystery” shape and played around a bit more with the ideas. These shapes also led to fun conversations about symmetry:

Finally, I let the kids just play around. As I was writing up this project I got a “hey dad, come here and look at this cool shape” call:

  

So, despite the math underlying these shapes being a little over their heads, the kids seemed to really enjoy seeing these shapes. I loved hearing their ideas and I loved seeing them play around with the ideas for a long time after we turned off the camera.

Also, Farris’s book is absolutely amazing – you’ll love the ideas and the presentation, and probably most of all the incredible pictures he creates from the ideas!

Extending Anna Weltman’s loop-de-loops with Frank Farris’s “Creating Symmetry”

We’ve had a ton of fun in the last couple of weeks with Ann Weltman’s loop-de-loop ideas:

  

Here are two of the projects that we did:

Anna Weltman’s loop-de-loops

Anna Weltman’s loop-de-loops part 2

Last night we stopped at a Barnes & Noble after dinner and I found a book that Evelyn Lamb had written about last month:

  

Here’s Evelyn Lamb’s piece:

Impossible Wallpaper and Mystery Curves by Evelyn Lamb

The book is absolutely wonderful and has so many cool examples. I’d hoped it would be easy to make some of the graphs in the book using Mathematica, and after a little documentation reading to kick off some rust, it wasn’t too hard:

 

At least visually the curves you can make from the idea in Farris’s book remind me of the loop-de-loops. I don’t really think it will be that productive to talk in detail with the boys about exponentials and graphing in the complex plane, but I do think they will like seeing the pictures and talking about them. I’m excited to show them some of the ideas from the book tomorrow morning.

Dan Anderson’s complex mappings part 2

Yesterday we did a fun project about a mapping in the complex plane that I saw from Dan Anderson on Twitter:

That project is here:

Dan Anderson Project part 1

When I asked the boys what they wanted to talk about this morning, they said that they wanted to talk more about Dan’s shapes. Instead of the whiteboard again, today we used Mathematica and had a really fun follow up project.

I stared out by showing them some simple code for the project. That code uses the Sin() and Cos() functions in Mathematica. I did not explain why I used these functions in any detail, but just jumped in to talking about the function Dan was studying:

 

After talking about a few of the simple cases in the first part, we moved on to talk about some of the more complicated cases.

Dan actually made a gif of how the map of the circle changes as you increase the number of terms in the series:

It was fun to hear the boys’ thoughts about the shapes in this part – including a couple of “whoa”‘s!

 

Next we explored another of Dan’s ideas – what about the images of circles having a radius other than 1. We explored a few smaller circles and a few larger circles. Lots of “whoa”‘s here. Seems like the ideas here are a great way to get kids to talk about geometry.

 

Finally, I thought it would be fun to look at a few contour plots of the map. The ideas here are a little more advanced and I’m not sure that the boys fully understood what they were looking at – which is fine. I just wanted to show a few alternate ways to view maps of complex functions:

 

So, a fun morning studying yesterday’s project in a little more depth. It sure was nice to year that they wanted to learn more about Dan’s shapes 🙂

After we finished, my younger son asked if he could play around a little more with the shapes on the computer – an hour later he just asked me again if me can play more. Awesome!

A neat complex number program from Dan Anderson

I drove back to Boston from NYC today and was pretty tired when I got home. BUT, upon arrival I saw this incredible tweet from Dan Anderson:

I had to ask Dan (and click through a few of the related tweets) to figure out what was going on, but the final shape in the Gif is the image of the unit circle under the map:

z -> z + z^4 / 4 + z^9 / 9 + \ldots + z^{n^2} / n^2 + \ldots

Amazing!

It was clear that the boys would find Dan’s tweet interesting, so I thought up a short project over dinner. Before diving in to that project, though, I just showed them the gif that Dan made and asked for their thoughts. The pings that you hear from my phone during the four videos are a barrage of more neat gifs from Dan!

 

After hearing what the kids thought about the shape, we moved to the white board to talk a little bit about complex numbers. The kids have heard a bit about complex numbers in the past – just not recently. Once we finished a quick review of some of the basics of complex numbers, we talked about what the image of the unit circle looks like when you take powers.

The talk here was obviously not intended to be a comprehensive talk about complex numbers. The ideas here are just what came to mind when I saw Dan’s picture plus my attempt to explain those ideas to kids on the fly.

 

Now I explained the picture Dan was making. When you first write down the map (as above) it looks really complicated. We tried to simplify as much as possible by walking through the images of some easy numbers. I was happy that we were actually able to make some good progress here. (Also happy that my older son thinks every infinite series adds up to -1/12. ha ha – thanks Numberphile!)

 

After we finished this part, Dan actually published a gif showing the first 20 steps – that picture helps you see the images that we talked about in this video:

Not having Dan’s latest gif handy during our project, we went back to his original picture to see if we had understood how 1, -1, i, and -i behave. It is really neat that you can explain the behavior of these special points to young kids 🙂

We end this video by looking at another new gif that Dan made while we were working out our project – it shows the images of circles with radius ranging from 0 to 1 under the map. Great work by Dan!

 

So, a really fun project for kids thanks to Dan’s incredible programming work. Such a great way to introduce kids to the cool behavior of complex numbers.

A great piece on Grothendieck by Ed Frenkel and a nice problem for students interested in math

[note: home sick with some stomach bug for the last two days – sorry for what is surely a bit of a rambling post]

Ed Frenkel published a nice piece in the New York Times today on the life and work of Alexander Grothendieck.

The Lives of Alexander Grothendieck, a Mathematical Visionary

In addition to Frenkel’s perspective on Grothendieck, what caught my attention was an almost off-hand observation about complex numbers that is really fascinating. I know it would have been quite a head scratcher for me in high school so I thought it would be fun to write about. Here’s the comment about the equation x^2 + y^2 = 1:

“One can show that the solutions of [x^2 + y^2 = 1] in complex numbers are points of an entirely different space; namely, a plane with one point removed.”

Students familiar with the equation x^2 + y^2 = 1 probably have only thought about this equation when both of the variables x and y are real numbers (when the solution is the familiar unit circle). The extension to complex numbers is a nice mathematical surprise.

So how can you think about Frenkel’s example? An excellent starting point is Richard Rusczyk’s sample solution for problem #25 of the 2013 AMC 12. The video below is a great way for students to see the power of geometric reasoning with complex numbers:

An approach similar to what Rusczyk outlines above is also a good way to start thinking about Frenkel’s equation. Try a few examples first – if x = 10i, for example, what values of y will satisfy the equation x^2 + y^2 = 1 (remember that both x and y are complex numbers)?

Now, if you have a generic value of x, what values of y will solve the equation? You’ll find that there are 2 values of y for most values of x, though importantly, not all.

Next is a real geometric leap – if every point x in the complex plane paired with exactly two points in Frenkel’s equation, seems as though the solution to the equation would be equivalent to two copies of the complex plane (possibly glued together in some strange way). Though it is challenging for sure, it is fun to think about what’s different from the situation I just described – in what way is the situation Frenkel describes similar to a plane with a point missing?

Away from this fun example of geometry with complex numbers, it was nice to see Grothendieck’s work described to the public. Another recent article about mathematicians written for the public was Michael Harris’ piece in Slate about the Breakthrough Prizes in math:

Michael Harris on the Breakthrough Prizes in Math

One of Harris’ points caught me off guard:

“Tao—the only math laureate with any social media presence (29,000-plus followers on Google Plus)—was a guest on The Colbert Report a few days after the ceremony. He is articulate, attractive, and the only one of the five who has done work that can be made accessible to Colbert’s audience in a six-minute segment.”

I was surprised to hear that Harris thought that the work of Jacob Lurie, Richard Taylor, Maxim Kontsevich, and Simon Donaldson really could not be made accessible to the public. Surprised enough, actually, to ask Jordan Ellenberg on twitter if he agreed with the statement:

Though his answer was not really a shock, it still disappoints me a little that work of these researchers is so inaccessible to the general public. Hopefully Frenkel, or other mathematics writers, can find a way to bring the beauty of their work to the public. I’d love to know more about Lurie’s work, or any of their work, frankly.

More public lectures like the one Terry Tao gave at the Museum of Math would be great, too. I’ve already done three projects with my kids already based on that lecture. It is amazing for them to be able to learn from Terry Tao!

Terry Tao’s MoMath lecture Part 1 – The Moon

Terry Tao’s MoMath lecture Part 2 – Clocks and Mars

Terry Tao’s MoMath lecture Part 3 – the Speed of Light and Paralax

It would be wonderful if there were more opportunities like Tao’s public lecture to introduce kids to research mathematicians and more article’s like Frenkel’s, too. Despite being home sick, Frenkel’s article made my day today.