January 08, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

It looks like a numbers game: 4,000 mathematicians gathering under one roof in downtown Baltimore for four days.

But while math mavens work with algorithms, polynomials and topologies, their desire to know speaks the language of poets.

How long does it take a bubble to float to Earth?

What are the rules for creating a cloud?

Why, in the fractured world of human relations, does the symbol for love take the shape of a perfectly symmetrical heart?

Of course, the answers to these questions are written in symbols that would have stumped Euclid.

"Math is the study of patterns, and what we really want is to find order," said Annalisa Crannell, a professor at Franklin and Marshall College attending this week's meetings of the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America at the Convention Center.

"We discover things exist because we have questions about the patterns in life."

They persevere because tree limbs invariably break into Y shapes every time a new twig sprouts; because the face of a rock is a series of undulating crinkles; because all bubbles take the form of spheres and all beehives are hiccups of hexagons.

"We do it,"said Crannell, "because it's beautiful."

And then scientists, often physicists or researchers in industry or government, come along and use what the curious mathematician has discovered and apply it to something useful.

"It's an art form with a very minuscule audience," said Hyman Bass, a professor at Columbia University. "And it has a language almost impenetrable by outsiders."

Everything from CAT scans to the labyrinth of airline schedules is based on mathematical principles discovered long before people knew what they would be used for.

The biggest employer of mathematicians in the United States is the National Security Agency; the Internet is the unexpected result of research by military mathematicians; the moon was reached not so much by the rockets that powered Apollo but by calculations that put the ship in the right place at the right time.

At home, math at work in our lives is as close as the phone in the kitchen.

Said Ron Graham, chief scientist for AT&T: "We're always looking for the shortest possible route to lay cable."

Although jobs in math are difficult to find these days, the &L mathematical community is trying to change the way the subject is taught in elementary school to increase the number of children willing to go into the field.

While many of the conventioneers are the offspring of mathematicians or scientists, they said it is an American myth that a kid has to be gifted -- a "math person" -- to have a career in math.

In the United States, most people believe that only the sharpest knives in the drawer go into math or science, while any reasonably intelligent person can become a lawyer by studying hard.

In Japan, it's just the opposite.

Hyman Bass believes that if the teaching of elementary school math doesn't change in a way that brings more children into the field, the United States will be in danger of becoming a Third World economy. He now chairs two committees working on reforms.

"The way we teach it now is just a filtering system," he said. "We lose about half the kids interested in math by the time they get out of high school. Another half by college.

"We're losing kids that don't have to be lost. Most of the people in Congress are not just math-illiterate, they're math-phobic. Yet they're making decisions on global warming and health care that have important mathematical foundations."

To get more children willing to take a chance on math -- or at least have some fun whether they know what's really going on or not -- Mary Kay Beavers invented a $34 math version of Scrabble called "Equate," in which tiles bear numbers or functions. Players must lay the tiles down in sequences that give correct answers.

"I know how to teach lower-level math," said Beavers, who teaches at City College in San Francisco and is confident that she can teach math to anyone willing to learn.

"If you don't get it before the eighth grade, you're can't go forward."

To the same end, Carl Schiotz promotes contraptions called Zometool, sticks and balls that look like 21st-century Tinkertoys when put together.

The 3-D structures are pretty cool by themselves, but they look really wild when dipped into dish-washing liquid. A film of soap clings to the different geometric forms to create interlocking bubbles in the shape of triangles, hexagons and the dodecahedron, Greek for "12 faces."

While bubbles have been around for as long as there's been an FTC ocean, the hard part, Schiotz said, "lies between what you see and how to explain it."

Pub Date: 1/08/98