About the Holiday
Today’s holiday isn’t really about the color yellow or about pigs—it’s about math! Who knew? Well, plenty of people, actually! Mathematicians, college professors, and students spend the day celebrating the number 17 with special problems and yellow pig cakes, songs, parades, and more. The holiday was established in the 1960 when two Princeton University students, David Kelly and Michael Spivak began obsessing over the number 17. And the yellow pig? One story say it’s a reference to David Kelly’s collection of yellow pigs while another goes that the two concocted the idea of a yellow pig with 17 toes, teeth, eyelashes, etc. To celebrate, study up on the prime number 17 and have some more math fun!
The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdős
Written by Deborah Heiligman | Illustrated by LeUyen Pham
In Budapest, Hungary a boy is born who loves math. His name is Paul Erdős and he lives with his mother, who loves him “to infinity” just as Paul loves her. When she goes back to work as a math teacher, she leaves Paul with Fräulein, his nanny. Fräulein loves rules and tries to get Paul to sit still, eat all his lunch, take a nap—to obey. But Paul hates rules.
At three years of age he teaches himself to count the days until his mother will be home with him 100 percent of the time. Knowing the number makes Paul feel better as his head is constantly full of numbers and what they can do. One day when he is four years old, he meets a woman and asks her two questions—what year she was born and at what time. When the woman tells him, it only takes him a moment to reveal how many seconds she has been alive.
He continues to play with numbers, learning more and more about the various types. He decides he will be a mathematician when he grows up. When Paul is old enough to go to school, he once again encounters rules he can’t abide. His mother decides he will be schooled at home, and even though this means more time with Fräulein, Paul considers it the better option.
There’s just one thing – while Paul thinks about numbers, Fräulein and his mother do everything for him. At meals they cut his meat and butter his bread; they dress him, and tie his shoes. When he becomes a teenager, he goes to high school and meets other kids who love math. He and his friends spend all their time doing math and by the time Paul is 20 he is famous around the world for his math equations.
There’s just one problem – even as an adult, Paul is so focused on numbers and math that he still doesn’t know how to do basic things for himself. When he is 21 he’s invited to go to England to work. At his first dinner there he stares at his bread and he stares at his meat. What is he supposed to do? With a little experimentation, he figures it out, but he also figures out that he sees the world in a different way.
He doesn’t want a normal life with a family and a house and a regular job. He designs for himself a very unusual lifestyle. Everything he owns fits into two suitcases, and with a little money in his pocket he flies from city to city to do math. He knows so many mathematicians that wherever he goes they invite Paul to stay with them. These families take care of Paul just as his mother and Fräulein had! They do his laundry, cook his meals, and pay his bills.
But even so, everyone loves “Uncle Paul!” He brings people together and shares his knowledge. His work in mathematics has given the world better computers, better search engines, and better codes for our spies to use. He was so admired that even now people represent their relationship with Paul by giving it a number – the “Erdős number.” Paul was a unique person who counted numbers and people as his best friends and experienced the world in a way that added up to a very special life.
Reading Deborah Heiligman’s The Boy Who Loved Math is a liberating experience. Her biography reveals not just what Paul Erdős did, but the quirky genius he was. It also honors all the people around the world who embraced his personality, allowing Erdős to focus on the work he was born to do. Heiligman’s engaging patter, full of interesting anecdotes, humor, and personality, is storytelling at its best and provides an absorbing look at a very unique life.
LeUyen Pham’s illustrations perfectly complement the text, exposing Erdős’s chafing under rules, his delight in math, and his development from youth to old age. Each fascinating page cleverly represents the way Erdős saw the world as numbers, equations, and geometric shapes appear on buildings, domes, and even in the very air! The text too is infused with numerals and mathematical symbols (“Paul loved Mama to ∞, too!), making this a prime book for any math lover!
Ages 5 – 9
Roaring Brook Press, 2013 | ISBN 978-1596433076
Discover more about Deborah Heiligman and her books on her website.
To learn more about LeUyen Pham, her books, and her art, visit her website.
Mathematics Awareness Month Activity
Totally Cool Mystery Phrase! Puzzle
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