Professors use the Beatles, guitars to make math more accessible

Dalhousie University Prof. Jason Brown demonstrates for high school students how math and music mix. High school students were at Carleton University in May to participate in the annual Discrete Math Days. For the first time, the event was opened to the general public. (James Park Photo)

When Carleton Prof. Brett Stevens goes to a party and introduces himself as a mathematician, an uncomfortable silence usually follows.

“The conversation stops and people look awkwardly around,” he says. “They don’t know how to respond because math brings up fear in a lot of people.”

A desire to help people overcome that fear inspired Stevens to open this year’s Discrete Math Days conference to the public for the first time since it began over 30 years ago.

A morning session called Math Connections was added specifically for people who aren’t mathematicians. More than 150 math and music students from local high schools participated.

“At this sort of lecture, students can actually see how some of the math they’re learning in school connects to things they’re more interested in,” says Stevens.

The best way to help people overcome their fear of math, he says, is to illustrate how math is part of everyday activities.

“I want to show them that math is about more than just calculus,” says Stevens.

Dalhousie University Prof. Jason Brown headlined the May event with a discussion about how all musicians use math – even ones who claim they’re not good at it.

“John Lennon said he was bad at math,” he told the student, adding the legendary songwriter, in fact, used math in most of his songs.

To illustrate his point, Brown gave the crowd an opportunity to “hear the math” by playing the beginning chord of the Beatles song “A Hard Day’s Night.”

In 2004, Brown attracted international media attention when he solved the mystery about the fourth instrument – it was the piano – used in the famous chord, a fact unknown until that point.

“It was interesting,” said Hilary Lundy, a student at North Grenville District High School.  “The music got me more into it.”

The role math plays in such things as card shuffling and Leonardo da Vinci’s art was also highlighted.

Kayla Whyte, also from North Grenville District High School, said the event made her look at math in a new light.

“I never really thought of the connection between math and music before,” she said.

And that’s exactly what Stevens hoped to hear.

“This is an opportunity to see that math connects to things that people know and love and are familiar with,” he says. “I hope people discover that in those connections, math isn’t really that scary.”

For information about Discrete Math Days, go to: http://www.carleton.ca/science/DiscreteMathDays2010.htm

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Tayleigh Armstrong

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