This post began life as an intended Facebook post. But it's gotten a bit long for Facebook, and I decided it belonged in perhaps permanent form on my own site. (I'll post a link to this on Facebook.)

Seth Oppenheimer tagged me on this:

> Share what inspired you to get into mathematics! This could be a mathematician (living or past) that inspired your research, a teacher, or anything. Tag three colleagues or current mathematicians that you want to see join the challenge.

I’m usually not big on share-and-tag things, so I’m not tagging anyone specific on this. (I’m a wimp.) But I thought it would be worth sharing how I got into mathematics, and if any of my mathematically-inclined friends want to share their experiences, they’re certainly welcome to do so.

Anyway, I was interested in science as a kid in the late 1960s. We lived near Washington DC, and I remember how much the Smithsonian Natural History Museum meant to me. Folks who’ve been to my office may have noticed a plastic triceratops dinosaur—this is a reminder of that museum, which had a life-size realistic fiberglass triceratops on the lawn that we played on when I was a kid. This was the Moon Race era, and watching the Apollo missions on TV, especially Apollo 11, made an enormous impact on me, as did seeing the actual moon rock on display at the Smithsonian. I also read lots of children’s science books. I read lots of Isaac Asimov as a teenager. His explanations of science were lucid and compelling.

What lead me to math itself, I’m not exactly sure, but it’s fair to say the infamous New Math of the 1960s might have had something to do with it; I was in that generation of school children. New Math was intended to instill a deeper understanding of math, and also to pull students to STEM fields (a big concern in the post-Sputnik era). One odd thing I remember in particular were blue plastic blocks that demonstrated powers of 10: one little block, ten attached to each other in a row, 100 in a 10 by 10 square, and 1000 in a 10 by 10 by 10 cube. New Math was a big a disaster (it generated a lot of public anger), but I might be one example of its success.

But I did have an early interest in math. As Seth Oppenheimer described, I spent a lot of time in the 9th grade trying to figure out how to solve cubic polynomial equations. My failure to do so is an indication that I was good at algebra, but I found a book in the library that explained how it’s done. This turned me on a lot. But what really got me was when I was 16 and learned computer programming (Basic on a Hewlett-Packard minicomputer, in 1976). Programming brought algebra to life, and I was amazed at what computers could do by way of mathematical calculations. I wanted to write a program to compute pi, but my trig book didn’t say how pi is computed. I ended up teaching myself calculus, and eventually did program pi (using arctangent power series).

Calculus blew my mind. It took a while for it to really sink in. One book that helped was Ivan Niven’s little book Calculus: An Introductory Approach, which was more like a junior/senior level intro to analysis text than an ordinary template-algebra intro calc book. Another book that helped was a very old book whose title and author escapes me, but which was published in 1898. (I found this in the public library downtown.) It spelled “show” as “shew” (as in “we will shew that”). This book had little theory–it just showed how the algebra worked, and it complemented the Niven book perfectly. (Niven gave me a good understanding of limits, the definition of derivative, and the definition of integral.)

When I got to college, I began as a physics major. But I realized that to a large extent, what I liked about physics was the math, and I switched to math in my sophomore year. I might credit Ray Mayer and Hugh Chrestensen as particular inspirations in math. I have to express my gratitude for Hugh in particular for his help in my junior-level intro analysis course, which I had trouble in. But of course, the most important inspiration to me mathematically as a professional would be my PhD advisor, Ken Ross—he taught me an enormous amount of wonderful mathematics, and did so in an tremendously lucid manner. Ken is also a generous and kind fellow who remains a huge inspiration to me.

Now as a mathematics teacher, I hope that I might be an inspiration to my students; I try to share with my students what makes the subject so interesting to me (especially in calculus). I’ve had the experience of seeing students discover that they like math and are really good at math. To the extent I’ve had anything to do with that, I’m tremendously grateful.