Working it Out

Working it Out

Nobody is good at math, even math professors. That’s something that Satyan Devadoss, PhD, Fletcher Jones Chair and professor of mathematics at USD wants you to embrace.

“When people get disheartened and say ‘I’m really not good at math,’ I actually want

to say, ‘I agree with you, you’re not good at math. But neither am I,’” says Devadoss.

He’s hoping to level the playing field in a book he recently co-authored, titled Mage Merlin’s Unsolved Mathematical Mysteries.

The richly illustrated, story-driven volume shows that there are math problems even mathematicians can’t figure out — which doesn’t mean that people can’t try. The puzzles are accessible to anyone with basic math skills, and the book’s audience includes parents of junior high and older children, puzzle lovers and educators looking for ways to improve math education for K-12 and beyond.

“Mathematicians have been trying to crack some of these problems for hundreds of years, but we might be looking at it the wrong way,” he explains. “Maybe you — as an artist, musician,
political scientist or plumber — can think of a fresh approach.”

Readers are transported back in time to play with 16 unsolved math problems woven into the story of Camelot. Readers work alongside famous characters like Excalibur, the Knights of the Roundtable, Merlin, along with a narrator, Maryam, who is inspired by the first female Fields medalist, Maryam Mirzakhani.

“Merlin is sort of like MacGyver. Arthur, Guinevere and the Knights called him to solve problems and figure out puzzles nobody else can. Merlin keeps a journal of problems that even he couldn’t solve. This is a collection of those stories.”

Merlin and Maryam guide readers through the math problems, allowing them to see that stories are everywhere, including in math.

“We think humanities and the arts deal with beautiful stories and images, but math is on the opposite end of the spectrum, about cold facts and formulas. We want to change this and bring these worlds together.”

Mage Merlin’s Unsolved Mathematical Mysteries is meant for just about anyone, and the puzzles inspire readers to collaborate, think outside the box and just have fun.

“This book is about you playing with beautiful math puzzles and building things no one has ever built before,” says Devadoss.

“It’s not about following instructions, but going off-road and having an adventure.” — Elena Gomez

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of USD Magazine. See a video at sandiego.edu/magemerlin.

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