A Mathematical Journey

Reviewed January 19, 2002.

Workman Publishing. 2001. 341 pages.

Starred Review

2002 Sonderbooks Stand-out:

#2 Biographical Nonfiction

I loved this book. Mind you, I don’t know if anyone’s who’s not a certified Math Nut would enjoy it as much, but for me, it was absolutely delightful.

This is the story of a 17-year-old girl who won Ireland’s Young Scientist of the Year and European Young Scientist of the Year awards for a mathematical project involving cryptography. She developed an algorithm for encoding text and showed that it is much faster than the currently used standard. Although in the end, her algorithm proved to be not as secure as the one she compared it with, she did earn international acclaim.

I like the way she draws you into the book and the mathematical ideas. It turns out that she got interested in math because of her father (David Flannery, the co-writer of this book and a mathematics professor). He would put puzzles up on the blackboard in the kitchen for his kids to solve. (I laughed at the blackboard in the kitchen. Now that’s a mathematician’s house!) She starts the book with some examples of these puzzles. They are challenging, a lot of fun, and get you ready for the ideas in cryptography that are to follow.

She continues with the ideas that go into her project in cryptography, and how she got interested in it. I think that she presents the material in an accessible way, although I can’t be sure, since it mostly involved Number Theory, something I studied in college. (She does tell you which chapters you can skip if you don’t like the mathematics!)

I’ve always thought it was a shame that Number Theory is only studied by upper-division math majors. Number Theory deals with integers, the numbers you learn on Sesame Street, plus their negatives. No decimals. No calculus. No graphing. Many of the basic concepts are so simple, even a small child could understand them. In fact, I have a favorite story about that. When my oldest son was in Kindergarten, he came home one day and said that their gym teacher had divided the class into pairs. “I think our class is not congruent to zero mod two,” he said. I was delighted, but my husband scolded me. “Why couldn’t you have taught him ‘odd’ and ‘even’?”

Granted, the ideas she presents in this book go way beyond what a five-year-old could understand, but I honestly don’t think you’d need a huge math background to follow her argument--only a basic liking for math and puzzles. She leads the reader gently through the train of thought, as well as giving you a feel for what it’s like to be an instant celebrity.

I did get some satisfaction out of the point she made that Number Theory for centuries has been considered the most “pure” of all mathematics--that is, the least applicable. However, in the 1970s, it became the basis for modern cryptographic methods, and suddenly came into its own. This pleased me because of all those annoying questions I got as a math teacher, “How are we going to USE this?” I eventually came up with my favorite answer-- “If you don’t learn it, I promise you’ll NEVER use it.”

I did get a special little thrill at the very end of the book. She included a copy of her award-winning paper. (I confess, I only skimmed it.) At the end of that was a bibliography listing eight items. One of these was a paper by Dr. Walt Stangl, the Biola professor who taught me Abstract Algebra and Number Theory! Cool!

I must admit that this book made me wistful. What would my life have been like if I had gotten a chance to work on something like that at 17? I dropped out of a Mathematics PhD program when I got married, and “settled” for a Master’s degree. At the time, it didn’t seem worth the work for a degree that would condemn you to teaching. (I ended up teaching college-level math for ten years, anyway. I learned to like it, but was thrilled when we moved to Germany and I was able to quit.) I wonder if my life would have changed if I had known about this non-teaching field that uses a fascinating area of mathematics?

Anyway, it’s hard to imagine being happier with a job than I am as a Library Technician at Sembach Library. So meanwhile, I’ll feed the mathematical side of my mind with delightful books like this one!