American students are currently ranked 32nd in the world in mathematics, a statistic that Ethan Brown ’17 calls “embarrassing” and hopes to combat.
Brown, who calls himself a “mathemagician,” has been performing what he calls “math with jazz hands” for four years. He became interested in mathemagics after discovering complex mental math strategies through a book by Dr. Arthur Benjamin, who performs shows similar to Brown’s.
Through his shows, which include a variety of math tricks, Brown hopes to popularize math and become involved in finding solutions to national problems in math education.
“One of my biggest passions is math education.… There are a lot of issues that need to be fixed, including the mastery and interest level of teachers, inadequate emphasis on number sense… and narrowness of the curriculum. Not only does mental math give a substantial boost in number sense, but it also shines light on the broadness of mathematics,” said Brown in an email to The Phillipian.
In a typical workshop, Brown spends about a half hour performing his show, which includes both straightforward mental math, such as squaring and square-rooting, as well as more unconventional tricks. In one trick, he calculates the day of the week that a given date occurred on. He also devotes a portion of the workshop to taking questions and explaining his tricks in an effort to spark an interest in math in his audience.
Brown’s signature trick is his magic square, an arrangement of numbers in a grid in which the vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines of numbers all add up to the same sum. While magic squares are commonly performed, Brown puts an original spin on them by allowing audience members to choose the sum, as well as three numbers to put in any three squares they want.
“Everything in my show can be learned, and that is a point I try to drive home during this section. There is no natural talent or ‘gift,’ just some basic techniques and hard work,” said Brown in an email to The Phillipian. “Because of the diversity within the subject, anyone should be able to find something they find interesting about it. Some might enjoy algebra or geometry, but others might prefer number theory, game theory, statistics, fractals, etc.”
“The techniques from my performance bits do hit upon many of these areas, and my hope is that the audience members can find an area or technique that they can click with,” added Brown.
At Andover, Brown founded a club called Mash-Up to teach other students tricks and to give them an opportunity to “mash together education and entertainment” in other subject areas, according to Brown. He hopes to gather students with a wide range of interests to create educational workshops similar to his own performances.
“I wanted to found Mash-Up for a few reasons. The initial reason sprouted from the idea that although I only talk about math education, there are issues in every discipline. There is also much more to each of them than the school curriculum that can and should be explored. At a school like Andover, there are likely many people who have the interest and knowledge to do this,” said Brown in an email to The Phillipian.
Brown hopes to eventually expand Mash-Up to high schools across the country. He points to organizations like Mock Trial and Model UN as platforms for students to become interested in law and politics and hopes that Mash-Up will provide a similar opportunity for students to be exposed to teaching.
“Mash-Up could become a training ground for teachers. Public school teachers currently are just as disappointing in mathematics as their students are in relation to other countries. There are also some pedagogical improvements that can be made. Putting most future teachers through a performing arts program like Mash-Up would hopefully start to eliminate these issues,” said Brown in an email to The Phillipian.
Since he discovered mathemagics, Brown has co-authored a peer-reviewed journal article with Benjamin, attended several conferences and was recently featured in “The New York Times.”
“Although there have been some many cool conferences and cities that I have ended up in, my favorite show would have to be my segment at The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas. This is a conference on science and critical thinking, and there were many prominent scientists, magicians and others that I got to meet. I was one of six performers in their Saturday night magic showcase, and I had already been a fan of the other performers. To be able to meet all of them and get up on stage beside them was such a cool experience,” said Brown in an email to The Phillipian.
For Brown, mathemagics is only the beginning. He hopes to help solve issues in math education and further popularize math, whether as a teacher, professor or public figure.
“The new ‘Cosmos’ series recently came out starring Neil DeGrasse Tyson, which was originally done by Carl Sagan in the late ‘70s. I would love to sort of become the Carl Sagan of mathematics. Sagan showed that science is fun, practical and accessible, and I would like to do the same with math,” said Brown.