An interview with Tim Chartier, author of Math Bytes: Google Bombs, Chocolate-Covered Pi, and Other Cool Bits in Computing
What inspired you to get into your field?
My journey into math came via my endeavors in performing arts. I was performing in mime and puppetry at international levels in college. Math was my "back-up" plan. Originally, I was taking math classes as required courses in my studies in computer science. I enjoyed the courses but tended to be fonder of ideas in computer science. I like the creative edge to writing programming. We don't all program in the same way and I enjoyed the elegance of solutions that could be found. This same idea attracted me to math - when I took mathematical proofs. I remember studying infinite - a topic far from my being entirely encompassed by my finite mind. Yet, through a mathematical lens, I could examine the topic and prove aspects of it. The artistry and creativity of mathematical study drew me to the field and kept me hooked through doctoral studies - a when I also studied mime with Marcel Marceau.
What do you think is the book's most important contribution?
When I describe the book to people, many respond with surprise or even better a comment like, "I wish I had a teacher like you." My current and former students often note that the book is very much like class. Let's create and play with ideas and discover how far they can go and, of great interest to me, how fun and whimsical they can be.
What is the biggest misunderstanding people have about what you do (anthropology, economics, etc.)?
Many think mathematics is about numbers. Much of mathematics is about ideas and concepts. My work lies at the boundary of computer science and mathematics. So, my work often models the real world so often mathematics is more about thinking how to use it to glean interesting or new information about our dynamic world. Numbers are interesting and wonderful but so is taking a handful of M&Ms and creating a math-based mosaic of my son or sitting with my daughter and using chocolate chips to estimate the value of Pi. And, just for the record, the ideas would be interesting even without the use of chocolate but that doesn't hurt!
What would you have been if not an anthropologist/scientist/etc.?
Many people think I would have been a full-time performer. I actually intentionally walked away from that field. I want to be home, have a home, walk through a neighborhood where I know my neighbors. To me, I would have found a field, of some kind, where I could teach. Then, again, I always wanted to be a creative member of the Muppet team - either creating ideas or performing!
What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
At one time, I was quite ill. It was a scary time with many unknowns. I remember resting in a dark room and wondering if I could improve and get better. I reflected on my life and felt good about where I was, even if I was heading into my final stretch. I remember promising myself that if I ever got better that I would live a life that later - whether it be a decade later or decades and decades later - that I would try to live a life that I could again feel good about whenever I might again be in such a state. I did improve but I pick projects that I believe aren't just exciting now but will be exciting in retrospect. This book is easily an example of such a decision.
Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to finish your book? Where do you write?
The early core of the book happened at 2 points. First, I was on sabbatical from Davidson College working at the University of Washington where I taught Mathematical Modeling. Some of the ideas of the book drew from my teaching at Davidson and were integrated into that course taught in Seattle. At the end of the term, my wife Tanya said, "You can see your students and hear them responding. Sit now and write a draft. Write quickly and let it flow. Talk to them and get the class to smile." It was great advice to me. The second stage came with my first reader, my sister Melody. She is not a math lover and is a critical reader of any manuscript. She has a good eye. I asked her to be my first reader. She was stunned. I wanted her to read it as I knew if she enjoyed it, even though there would be parts she wouldn't understand fully, then I had a draft of the book I wanted to write. She loved it and soon after I dove into the second draft.
Do you have advice for other authors?
My main advice came from award-winning author Alan Michael Parker from Davidson College. As I was finishing, what at the time I saw as close to my final draft, Alan said, "Tim, you are the one who will live with this book for a lifetime. Many will read it only once. You have it for the rest of your life. Write your book. Make sure it is your voice. Take your time and know it is you." His words echoed in me for months. I put the book down for several months and then did a revision in which I saw my reflection in the book's pages - I had seen my reflection before but never as clearly.
Why did you write this book?
My hope is that readers simply delight in the book. A friend told me the book is full of small mathematical treasures. I have had folks who don't like math say they want to read it. For me, it is like extending my Davidson College classroom. Come and let's talk math together. What might we discover and enjoy? Don't like math? Maybe it is simply you haven't taken a byte of a mathematical delight that fits your palate!
Who do you see as the audience for this book?
I wanted this book, at least large segments of it, to read down to middle school. I worked with public school teachers on many of the ideas in this book. They adapted the ideas to their classrooms. And yet, the other day, I was almost late taking my kids to school as I had to pull them from reading my book, a most satisfying reason. In my mime training, Marcel Marceau often said, "Create your piece and let the genius of the audience teach you what you created." I see this book that way. I wrote a book that I see my students and the many to whom I speak in broad public settings smiling at as they listen. Who all will be in the audience of this book? That's for me to learn from the readers. I look forward to it.