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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sol Lederman is Wild About Math

 Math-frolic Interview #7

"Making math fun and accessible" -- Sol Lederman (from his blog)


Another delight for me today... I suspect anyone reading my blog is well-familiar with Sol Lederman's "WildAboutMath" blog -- it's been around a long time, and makes virtually every list of 'best math blogs on the Web' that ever comes out! Sol was actually the first person I asked for an interview, but being a busy guy, later requests to others actually got back to my email box faster. But better late than never!

Sol loves talking with people who are "inspired by math." I'm not sure though that he realizes just how inspiring HE has been to many of us in the blogosphere… I would never have attempted a simple and sometimes light-hearted math blog aimed at a general readership, had Sol's "Wild About Math" blog not blazed a path showing there was an audience for a not-too-technical approach. Moreover, his recent podcast series was the inspiration for the interview series here.
So without further delay ....he-e-e-e-e-ere's Sol:

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

I've loved math forever. And, I enjoy writing. Some years ago I became burned out on my techie work and wanted to make a change. So, I jumped ship and started blogging. That was five years ago. I didn't stay away from tech for very long, though. I'm back doing programming, tech support, and other related things. But, I still blog occasionally although far far less than I once did.

2) Beyond writing a blog, where does math fit into the rest of your life or work? (if not already covered above)

Math for me is about logical thinking AND about creative expression. Depending on the task, I sometimes get to do creative thinking at work. Certainly the mathematical qualities of problem solving, pattern matching, associating one idea with another, and attention to detail carry over from my math to my work.

3) What are your favorite aspects of mathematics (that you yourself most enjoy studying)?

I'm very intrigued with the question of how to make math more understandable to the masses. Just today I was having a conversation with my boss about how fractions work and why the techniques we have for manipulating fractions actually work. Why is it that we can multiply fractions? What does it mean to divide a fraction by another fraction? How much of this is pure abstraction vs. grounded in something that students can understand and touch? Anything that demystifies math is exciting to me.

4) "Wild About Math" has been one of the most popular and consistently-highly-rated math blogs on the Web (it recently had it's 5-year anniversary!). Can you tell us how it first came about in your mind, and how confident were you that there would be an audience for it?

I once thought that I'd like to lead workshops with kids where we would explore the "wilds of math." I did do math circles in Santa Fe for nearly a year but I never did create the workshop for kids. But, the idea for a name stuck, and became Wild About Math!

5) Are there any funny or entertaining behind-the-scenes stories you can tell from having run a blog for 5 years?

Early in the blog's history I wrote a post, Impress your friends with mental math tricks. I wrote that post quickly and without a huge amount of thought or editing. That post got 45,000 views one day, mostly from folks at StumbleUpon. It made the front page of Digg and put the blog on the map. And, that humble post continues to bring traffic five years later. No other post has ever come close to achieving that status!

Me: ...WOW!, 45,000 that's amazing… I was thrilled in the very early days of my blog when YOU once linked to a puzzle I presented and I immediately got several hundred additional visitors, and as you indicate, I still today get visitors to that post every single week from your original link. So I hear what you're saying even though I've never experienced it on that scale.

 6) Are there certain blogposts you've done that stand out for you as personal favorites or ones that were the most fun to work on? And from the other side, which posts seem to have been most popular or attention-getting with your readers?


This fun post is the second most popular article from the blog. It gives 8 simple math-based games that kids can play with paper and pencil. My favorite posts are the recent podcast interviews I've done with people making a difference in math education.

7) Name some of your favorite math books that you like reading for enjoyment, and/or books that you recommend to people who are interested in math but may lack a strong academic background in it.

I recommend any of James Tanton's books, books by Theoni Pappas, Keith Devlin, and the late Martin Gardner, of course.

8) You're very interested in math learning and education. What's your view of Khan Academy and the ongoing controversy that seems to surround it in some quarters? Are there online instructional math sites that are your favorites? And have you taken any online courses yourself (perhaps Keith Devlin's latest offering)?

I've not taken online math courses and I'm not impressed with most instructional math sites. Regarding Sal Khan's work, I feel he's doing the same old paradigm, lecturing to students, but on video instead of in a classroom. I am VERY excited, though, about the work of Scott and Jen. They are doing phenomenal stuff with online game-based education. They are the only online site I'm excited about.

Me: Interesting, hope readers check it out...

9) For awhile now your blog has focused on podcasts with individuals who, as you say, 'are inspired by math, and inspire others'. Is that the format (podcasts) you see the blog taking for the foreseeable future, or any plans to return to more written posts at some point, or do you have any other vision for the future of your blog? And can you say anything about which 'math inspirers' we may look forward to in future podcasts?

For the foreseeable future, yeah, I plan to keep doing podcasts. I like doing them much more than writing book reviews. Princeton University Press and the MAA send me a fair number of books that I really like so you can expect to see me interviewing their authors. But, I'm open to interviewing a wide variety of authors. I feel like my momentum for math blogging has been slowing down. I've got other interests I'm pursuing so I don't expect to do much more than the monthly or so interview that I'm doing these days.

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

I sincerely appreciate your interest in interviewing me and I've said more than once that I really enjoy your blog. I don't read math blogs very often these days but when I'm in the mood to scan a few I always make it a point to check out yours.

Me: Thanks for the kind words; much appreciated, and great to know you're a fan! 

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Sol further asked about my availability for a podcast on his blog, but for now, I think he has too many really interesting, knowledgeable people to choose from before I take up his time! Maybe one day though....

Thanks for participating here Sol, and congratulations on 5 great years of successfully making math fun and accessible!! (And I've added a permanent link to WildAboutMath podcasts in my right-hand column "podcast" listings.)


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