|Ivars Peterson's MathTrek|
April 29, 1996
But it's not too tough for Frank Morgan, a math professor at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and his student costar, Eric Watson. Sitting in front of the camera, the two hosts deftly toss the challenge back to the audience and go on to the next caller.
Morgan's half-hour call-in program airs every Sunday night at 6:30 p.m. on Willinet, the local cable community access channel. Despite competing news and sports programming, it manages to attract a respectably sized audience and a steady stream of callers to each program. "60 Minutes begged us to end by 7:00 p.m.," Morgan confides.
Sometimes, it's a student with a homework problem. Sometimes, it's just an attempt to stump the professor (and the audience). It's all pretty low-key but surprisingly engaging. The time passes quickly, and Morgan doesn't always have a chance to delve into the math topic or use the props he had been prepared to introduce and discuss on the program. Nowadays, so many people want to call that they often have trouble getting through.
Morgan's Math Chat is also a forum for quick thinking -- a way of demonstrating mathematical reasoning in action. In discussing the problem of the three salemen, for example, Morgan could slip neatly into a discussion of prime factorization before revealling the answer to be 20 days.
Morgan also discusses math news and advertises upcoming campus events, both mathematical and nonmathematical, that might interest the community. Occasionally, he has featured guests on the program, including a middle-school student showing her math fair project, another student who calls in often with both questions and answers, and several faculty members. Colleague Colin Adams appeared once as the character Mel Slugbate, a sleazy salesman of real estate in hyperbolic space.
The hosts give away prizes for good questions and correct answers. Since its debut in January, Morgan has handed out several dozen books (including many copies of Flatland) and other prizes.
Math Chat is produced with no budget but a great deal of enthusiasm and the participation of a number of undergraduate students as rotating cohosts and in various behind-the-scenes roles. Morgan plans to continue the program through the summer and beyond. His greatest satisfaction is the interest and enthusiasm he has encountered in town.
"All kinds of folks come up to us on the street and in the supermarket and say how much they enjoy the show -- often even though they never liked math," Morgan says.
In a local newspaper interview after the program's debut, Morgan explained that he and his students aimed to make Math Chat like the popular public radio show CarTalk, with mechanics Tom and Ray Magliozzi. "If car mechanics can be fun, just think what you can do with math," he remarked.
Now, back to the calls: So, what's a truncated hexahedron? How many digits are there altogether in the page numbers of a thousand-page book? What's an example of a perfect number?
Copyright © 1996 by Ivars Peterson.
Morgan, Frank. 1995. Calculus Lite. Wellesley, Mass.: A K Peters.
Frank Morgan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comments are welcome. Please send messages to Ivars Peterson at email@example.com.