Arthur Benjamin doesn’t need any stinking calculators.

At last weekend’s World Science Festival, what I’d hoped would be a personal highlight — a star-gazing party in Battery Park — turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, as a completely overcast sky blocked out any view of the stars. It was, however, fun to walk around the full-scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope — Hubble’s eventual replacement, scheduled to launch in 2014 — as well as to hear the distinguished panelists discuss advances in astronomy, and to see the always-entertaining Neil deGrasse Tyson play host to the crowd. Still, I wanted to see stars.

On the other hand, a casual family outing to Sunday’s festival events in Washington Square Park led us to one of the most astonishing demonstrations of mental power I’ve ever seen.

Meet Arthur Benjamin, a.k.a. the Mathemagician. This is a clip from his 2005 TED talk; at the festival, he performed these acts and more, and even let us in on some of his strategies and shortcuts:

The rock-star ovation he received at the end of our event was at least twice as loud as this. I’d never seen so many kids — and grown-ups — get so excited about math, and the prospect of improving our math skills; thanks to his tips our daughter is now proficient at doing magic squares, and I’m itching to wow people with my new “I can multiply 11 by any two-digit number” trick at the next dinner party.

No surprise that Benjamin is also a mathematics professor. Here’s what he has to say about the state of math education in America:

Arthur Benjamin does for math what Carl Sagan did for science, and what every teacher should do with their chosen specialty: make the subject come alive. He should be cloned and put into every math class in the country. Because if you can get kids to fall in love with what they learn, you make the rest of their education a whole lot easier.

(And kudos to the young man in the audience who won a digital camera during the pre-show, for correctly stating the quadratic equation. Knowledge is rewarding, of course, but the reward isn’t often this immediately tangible!)


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