December 29, 1998|By Lini S. Kadaba | Lini S. Kadaba,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Go figure.

If mathematical ability equals money and if money equals the essence of cool in these materialistic times, then an intellect for math equals very cool.

Just add up the ample evidence:

Mathematics plays a significant role in several recent popular books, blockbuster movies and a campaign for a new men's cologne that salutes "the sex appeal of intelligence."

We offer more proof.

In some locales, high school math competitors, "mathletes," are capturing the limelight once reserved for jocks. The latest SAT math scores are the highest they have been in 27 years.

A planned TV series featuring scientists and engineers has captured the imagination of a high-profile producer. Even the diaper set has its nerdy PBS hero in Arthur, who sports thick glasses and loves a math test.

"I think there's a hunger for mathematical understanding," says best-selling author John Allen Paulos, a Temple University mathematics professor.

Paulos, who wrote the books "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper," once again explains the esoteric world of numbers to the masses, this time by examining relationships between literature and mathematics, in the just-published "Once Upon a Number" (Basic Books, $23).

"It's amazing -- the phrase 'popular math books' was an oxymoron," he says. "We live in a time that demands more facility with abstraction and that's mathematical. Science, in general, is increasingly important, and we're inundated by numbers."

In innumerable ways, math plays a part in our daily lives: weather forecasts (derived from mathematical formulas); political polls; stock-market undulations; computer-generated special effects; space-shuttle launches; calculating the tip for that lunch tab.

Even a good flush these days owes its success to mathematics.

By law, new toilets can use only 1.6 gallons of water per flush -- an amount that doesn't always get the job done. A high-tech company in Los Alamos, N.M., has created software based on formulas for volume and flow that can simulate a flushing toilet -- a popular tool among manufacturers trying to design a more effective toilet.

"It's quite clear the nerds are running away with all the money," says Stanley Eliason, national secretary/treasurer of Mu Alpha Theta honor society and a mathematics professor at the University of Oklahoma. "Bill Gates hasn't hurt."

The organization of high school and junior college math scholars has watched its membership rise to 50,000 mathletes and 1,300 chapters as interest in state math competitions has increased.

"Mathematics is the modern language of leadership," Eliason says.

One purveyor of haute couture has tapped into the new allure of mathematicians and, by extrapolation, brainiacs.

Next year, Givenchy will introduce nationwide a fragrance for men it calls Pi. Named after the Greek symbol, it represents the number 3.1415 (ad infinitum) and, proclaim its marketers, "never-ending exploration."

Earlier this year, the company test-marketed the computer-generated scent in Miami, a location chosen not so much for its intelligent men but for its number of shoppers who wouldn't think twice about paying $50 for 3.3 ounces of a musky/spicy cologne.

Nevertheless, Givenchy has declared Pi the thinking man's fragrance.

Students at Philadelphia's George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science think math's new cachet is cool to the nth degree.

"It's about time," says student body president Anwar Jackson, 17. "I don't have any muscles."

The mathematician as hero has gotten a hefty boost from Hollywood.

"Good Will Hunting" featured sexy Matt Damon as the troubled young genius, and "Contact" starred Jodie Foster as an astronomer in search of extraterrestrial intelligence.

In "Pi," the award-winning summer art-house thriller, math genius Maximilian Cohen (Sean Gullette) verges on madness as he studies patterns in the stock market.

"People are looking for keys to uncover the secrets of life," "Pi" director Darren Aronofsky has said. "Pi is being rediscovered as a way to look at the universe and find possible answers to the eternal questions."

Our unease has mounted as the millennium nears, bringing with it a technical Armageddon in the form of that computer glitch known as the Y2K problem. It's only logical that we yearn for the surety of mathematical formulas.

That desire for universal answers helps explain the popularity of books like "Fermat's Last Theorem" by Amir D. Aczel. The book tells the tale of the enigmatic theorem that English mathematician Andrew Wiles proved in 1993.

"Everyone was taken by surprise at how well that book did," says Jeff Zaleski, an editor-at-large at Publishers Weekly.

Since then, books about math have piled up, like so much computer data, and have titillated the minds of even those who don't know pi from pie.

Earlier this year, the life of Paul Erdos, an eccentric but immensely respected mathematician in the field of number theory, was the subject of two tomes: Paul Hoffman's "The Man Who Loved Only Numbers "(Hyperion, $22.95) and Bruce Schechter's "My Brain Is Open" (Simon & Schuster, $25). Sylvia Nasar's "A Beautiful Mind" recounts the life of John Forbes Nash Jr., the handsome mathematical genius who went mad at 30, only to make a recovery and win the 1994 Nobel Prize for economics.

"I think there's a certain romance attached to mathematics," Zaleski says. "It's like a priesthood because only a few people understand it."

Pub Date: 12/29/98