“When I began my college education, I still had many doubts about whether I was good enough for mathematics. Then a colleague said the decisive words to me: it is not that I am worthy to occupy myself with mathematics, but rather that mathematics is worthy for one to occupy oneself with.”
Rózsa Péter and the Curious Students
I would like to win over those who consider mathematics useful, but colourless and dry — a necessary evil…
No other field can offer, to such an extent as mathematics, the joy of discovery, which is perhaps the greatest human joy.
The schoolchildren that I have taught in the past were always attuned to this, and so I have also learned much from them.
It never would have occurred to me, for instance, to talk about the Euclidean Algorithm in a class with twelve-year-old girls, but my students led me to do it.
I would like to recount this lesson.
What we were busy with was that I would name two numbers, and the students would figure out their greatest common divisor. For small numbers this went quickly. Gradually, I named larger and larger numbers so that the students would experience difficulty and would want to have a procedure.
I thought that the procedure would be factorization into primes.
They had still easily figured out the greatest common divisor of 60 and 48: “Twelve!”
But a girl remarked: “Well, that’s just the same as the difference of 60 and 48.”
“That’s a coincidence,” I said and wanted to go on.
But they would not let me go on: “Please name us numbers where it isn’t like that.”
“Fine. 60 and 36 also have 12 as their greatest common divisor, and their difference is 24.”
Another interruption: “Here the difference is twice as big as the greatest common divisor.”
“All right, if this will satisfy all of you, it is in fact no coincidence: the difference of two numbers is always divisible by all their common divisors. And so is their sum.”
Certainly that needed to be stated in full, but having done so, I really did want to move on.
However, I still could not do that.
A girl asked: “Couldn’t they discover a procedure to find the greatest common divisor just from that?”
They certainly could! But that is precisely the basic idea behind the Euclidean Algorithm!
So I abandoned my plan and went the way that my students led me.
— Rózsa Péter
quoted at the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive
For Further Exploration
- Euclidean Algorithm Explained Visually
- Euclid’s Game on a Hundred Chart
- Kid-Friendly Prime Factorization
Note: When the video narrator says “Greatest Common Denominator,” he really means “Greatest Common Divisor.”
CREDITS: “Pink toned thoughts on a hike” photo courtesy of Simon Matzinger on Unsplash.