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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Pat Ballew of Pat'sBlog

First off, a quick note that Steven Strogatz's latest NY Times piece, a fantastic introduction to 'catastrophe theory,' which seems to lurk within a broad range of fields, is now available here:


And without further adieu, a little drum-roll for the first Math-frolic Interview! ;-) (see Oct. 6 post for background)...

Pat Ballew is a math teacher who has been blogging for about 5 years at "Pat's Blog." Though he still does postings on various topics, for some time now he's focused on his "On This Day in Math" entries which chronicle historical happenings related to mathematics for each day throughout the year. If you wish to know what of note happened in mathematics on your birthday, Pat's blog is the place to go!
And now, a little more about him:


1) ME: To start, could you tell readers a little about your background or anything else pertinent to your becoming a math blogger…

PAT:  I think the most important element in my becoming a blogger was being a teacher outside the US for the DoD school system.  I had discovered, to my dismay, when I first began teaching that most math teachers did not enjoy sitting around talking about math ideas, its history, and solving problems.  I was using the internet almost from it's inception to search out discussion groups where I could find..."folks like me." And I not only found them, but they nurtured my mathematical growth and teaching development were profound. The fact that people whose names I had known and admired for years were suddenly communicating with me, and most often correcting my misconceptions.  My blog probably emerged from a math etymology web page I started around 2000.  I used it first as a source of organizing my notes about my interest in how came to use the words we do for mathematical ideas. When I shared it with a few students and ex-students and then I noticed that it was being followed in far off places.  When the Library of Congress linked some of my words, I might have been really hard to live with for a few days. 
So adding a blog on one of the old (now defunct) Yahoo things was a natural way for me to post ideas about extensions and ideas I wanted to share with my classes that went beyond  what we could cover in the general class time.  Finally, around December of 2007, I got frustrated with the deteriorating Yahoo site and switched to blogger.  There, with the support of readers who were much brighter than me, it sort of grew into a somewhat popular blog. 

2) ME: Do you recall how your interest in mathematics originally came about, and when did you first know you wished to pursue math professionally?

PAT:  I think I was interested in math (arithmetic?) in elementary school, but my real appreciation for math probably began when I discovered Mathematics for the Million: How to Master the Magic of Numbers by Lancelot Hogeben.  I still have a copy and have looked at it, and referenced it often. That led me to Number, The Language of Science by Dantzig.  That led me eventually to the guide that led so many of us to love loving mathematics, Martin Gardner.  From there, like so many others, I did not pursue mathematics, it pursued me, on every long ride, quiet moment and daydream. 

3) ME: What are your favorite aspects of mathematics (that you yourself most like studying/reading about)?

PAT:  I don't know if I have a favorite area, but perhaps because I never got to teach Geometry as a subject, I love beautiful geometric relationships and always enjoyed working out geometric illustrations of algebraic and analysis ideas.  I also have a special place for fractals, chaos, and non-linear dynamics because I had the opportunity to attend a conference on the subject with several of Mandelbrot's Proteges, and the legendary Chicago-land teacher, Lee Yonkers.

4) ME: Your blog is fairly unique in the daily chronological history-of-math format that it's adopted; always fascinating stuff, but I can also imagine both positive and negative aspects to such a focus. Is it fun and efficient for you to have a such a 'typecast' format, or does it ever feel overly-restrictive or repetitive? Also, I can't help but think there might be a book in the future, based on your math chronologies. Any comment in that regard?

PAT:  I still include blogposts about mathematical ideas.  These are frequently on areas that involve the history of the evolution of a theorem, but sometimes it's just something I think is "cute".  I think if I didn't mix in the math and history ideas I would feel the format constrained a little, but the daily events page was something I had been developing in my own teaching and felt that the response of students was so positive that other teachers might want such a resource who did not have the time to construct it for themselves.  The results have suggested that some people have found it worthwhile.  As far as a book, I'm not sure, but if an interested publisher out there ever approaches, I think I would love to fill out details in some of the "events" sections into stories that might be of interest.  I also have some articles I think would be great for future teachers about the emergence of some of the concepts and theorems that are part of the common high school curriculum. 

5) ME: Approximately how much time per week do you spend working on your blog? And is it principally "a labor of love" or much more than that for you?

PAT:  If you count the time reading, researching and just thinking about it, it is probably unnaturally long, but I manage to do the actual reviewing, updating, and editing within an hour or two.  As I mentioned earlier, I mostly put out ideas I wanted to share with students and other interested teachers and math hobbyists.   

6) ME: What are some of the historical math notes or events you've uncovered that you found most interesting or unusual?

PAT:  I think the ones that seem most interesting are the ones that I'm still searching for: What happened to the Pipe that Gauss gave to Farkas Bolyai, to commemorate their friendship, or the real origin of the term "law of cosines", which seems to have first emerged in the title of a chapter, which strikes me as unusual.  I also have been trying to reason out the fact that Professor David Singmaster has said that the process called casting out nines was introduced by Iamblichus, who lived in the Second Century. 
I do love the little living anecdotes that reveal the culture of mathematics, and mathematicians, and I love anything that reminds me of  the Pythagorean theorem variations. 

7) ME: Can you name some of your favorite math books to read for your own enjoyment, and how about math books that you'd especially recommend to lay people?

PAT:  I named a couple of the formative ones above, but right now I'm reading Strogatz Joy of X, and I just ordered Thomas Levenson's Newton and the Counterfeiter
I love the Ghost Map and Longitude, and have loaned out numerous copies to students.  Genius is another I give often.  I love biographies of math and science people in general. 
Most of my readings these days are other bloggers that I read every post.  I mentioned your post above, and  I read John D Cook at The Endeavour.  My favorite Science History blog is the Renaissance Mathematicus, Thony Christie.  I frequently steal from Gregg Ross at Futility Closet. I know from your blog that you, like me follow Sol at Wild About Math.  I have dozens of bloggers I keep on my reader who seem to have passed in and out of blogging.  Many of them shared their ideas with me and made me much better than I could have been without their input. 

8) ME: From having blogged as long as you have, do you have any words of advice you would offer to other bloggers or math communicators?

PAT:  I think you have to just write what you feel, but always out of respect for the reader.  Strogatz gave great advice to writers about how to handle critical comments, "I don't read them."  Perhaps a hint of direction from a quote I shared this morning with my beautiful sweetheart, Jeannie. 
"Don't ask yourself what the world needs, Ask yoursef what makes you come alive. And then go and do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

9) ME: Any parting words, not covered above, you'd care to pass along to a math-oriented audience?

PAT:  If I suggested from Strogatz's quote above that you shouldn't read your comments, let me advise you to read them, but not just criticism.  Constructive criticism and advice can make you much better. I can't name all the people who sent me information, and corrections that helped me make my blog more effective. 
And find lots of other blogs to read. 


-- THANKS for participating Pat, and getting the ball rolling here. If you're not already familiar with it, be sure to stop by Pat's blog at: http://pballew.blogspot.com/


1 comment:

Pat B said...

An honor, Sir, After all your great blogs, I'm sure the public will forgive you this one.