Reblog: Calculus Tidbits

[Feature photo above by Olga Lednichenko via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).]

This week I have a series of quotes about calculus from my first two years of blogging. The posts were so short that I won’t bother to link you back to them, but math humor keeps well over the years, and W. W. Sawyer is (as always) insightful.

I hope you enjoy this “Throw-back Thursday” blast from the Let’s Play Math! blog archives:

Finding the Limit

Eldest daughter had her first calculus lesson last night: finding the limit as delta-t approached zero. The teacher found the speed of a car at a given point by using the distance function, calculating the average speed over shorter and shorter time intervals. Dd summarized the lesson for me:

“If you want to divide by zero, you have to sneak up on it from behind.”

Harmonic Series Quotation

This kicked off my week with a laugh:

Today I said to the calculus students, “I know, you’re looking at this series and you don’t see what I’m warning you about. You look and it and you think, ‘I trust this series. I would take candy from this series. I would get in a car with this series.’ But I’m going to warn you, this series is out to get you. Always remember: The harmonic series diverges. Never forget it.”

—Rudbeckia Hirta
Learning Curves Blog: The Harmonic Series
quoting Alexandre Borovik

So You Think You Know Calculus?

Rudbeckia Hirta has a great idea for a new TV blockbuster:

Common Sense and Calculus


And here’s a quick quote from W. W. Sawyer’s Mathematician’s Delight:

If you cannot see what the exact speed is, begin to ask questions. Silly ones are the best to begin with. Is the speed a million miles an hour? Or one inch a century? Somewhere between these limits. Good. We now know something about the speed. Begin to bring the limits in, and see how close together they can be brought.

Study your own methods of thought. How do you know that the speed is less than a million miles an hour? What method, in fact, are you unconsciously using to estimate speed? Can this method be applied to get closer estimates?

You know what speed is. You would not believe a man who claimed to walk at 5 miles an hour, but took 3 hours to walk 6 miles. You have only to apply the same common sense to stones rolling down hillsides, and the calculus is at your command.

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More Than One Way To Find the Center of a Circle

[Feature photo above by hom26 via Flickr.]

My free time lately has gone to local events and to book editing. I hope to put up a series of blog posts sometime soon, based on the Homeschool Math FAQs chapter I’m adding to the paperback version of Let’s Play Math. [And of course, I’ll update the ebook whenever I finally publish the paperback, so those of you who already bought a copy should be able to get the new version without paying extra.]

But in the meantime, as I was browsing my blog archives for an interesting “Throw-Back Thursday” post, I stumbled across this old geometry puzzle from Dave Marain over at MathNotations blog:

Is it possible that AB is a chord but NOT a diameter? That is, could circle ABC have a center that is NOT point O?

Jake shows Jack a piece of wood he cut out in the machine shop: a circular arc bounded by a chord. Jake claimed that the arc was not a semicircle. In fact, he claimed it was shorter than a semicircle, i.e., segment AB was not a diameter and arc ACB was less than 180 degrees.

Jack knew this was impossible and argued: “Don’t you see, Jake, that O must be the center of the circle and that OA, OB and OC are radii.”

Jake wasn’t buying this, since he had measured everything precisely. He argued that just because they could be radii didn’t prove they had to be.

Which boy do you agree with?

  • Pick one side of the debate, and try to find at least three different ways to prove your point.

If you have a student in geometry or higher math, print out the original post (but not the comments — it’s no fun when someone gives you the answer!) and see what he or she can do with it.

Dave offers many other puzzles to challenge your math students. While you are at his blog, do take some time to browse past articles.

Reblog: The Case of the Mysterious Story Problem

[Feature photo above by Carla216 via flickr (CC BY 2.0).]

Seven years ago, I blogged a revision of the first article I ever wrote about homeschooling math. I can’t even remember when the original article was published — years before the original (out of print) editions of my math books.

I hope you enjoy this “Throw-back Thursday” blast from the Let’s Play Math! blog archives:

I love story problems. Like a detective, I enjoy sifting out clues and solving the mystery. But what do you do when you come across a real stumper? Acting out story problems could make a one-page assignment take all week.

You don’t have to bake a pie to study fractions or jump off a cliff to learn gravity. Use your imagination instead. The following suggestions will help you find the clues you need to solve the case…

[Click here to go read the original post.]

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Alexandria Jones and the Strange Attractor

[Feature photo above: Clifford Attractor by Yami89 (public domain) via Wikimedia Commons.]

Alexandria Jones collapsed onto the couch with a dramatic sigh. Her father, the world-famous archaeologist Dr. Fibonacci Jones, glanced up from his newspaper and rolled his eyes.

“I don’t even want to hear about it,” he said.

Alex’s brother Leonhard was playing on the floor, making faces at the baby. He looked up at Alex and grinned.

“I’ll take the bait,” he said. “What happened?”

“Mom called my bedroom a Strange Attractor.”

“Oh? What does it attract?”

“I don’t know. Mostly books and model horses. But what’s so strange about that?”

The Mathematics of Chaos

Animation of a double compound pendulum showing chaotic behaviour.

Dr. Jones laughed and put down his paper. “Strange attractor is a technical term from the branch of mathematics called dynamical systems analysis — often called chaos theory.”

“So my bedroom is a math problem?”

“No. I think Mom meant your bedroom was chaos.”

“Oh.” Alex looked like she might pout, then she shrugged. “I guess she’s right, at that. So what is a strange attractor, really?”

“Well, when scientists first drew graphs of classical, non-chaotic systems — like a planet’s orbit or the flight of a football — it was surprising how often they got an ellipse or parabola or some similar curve,” Dr. Jones explained. “For some reason, nature seemed to be attracted to the shapes of classical geometry.”

Click here to continue reading.

The Linear Inequality Adventures of Ohio Jones

Ohio Jones 1

Last week, Kitten and I reached her textbook’s chapter on graphing linear equations, and a minor mistake with negative numbers threw her into an “I can’t do it!” funk. It’s not easy teaching a perfectionist kid.

Usually her mood improves if we switch to a slightly more advanced topic, and luckily I had saved these worksheets on my desktop, waiting for just such an opportunity. Today’s lesson:

  • Some fun(ish) worksheets
    “For tomorrow, students will be graphing systems of inequalities, so I decided to create a little Ohio Jones adventure (Indiana’s lesser known brother)…”

I offered to give her a hint, but she wanted to try it totally on her own. It took her about 40 minutes to work through the first few rooms of the Lost Templo de los Dulces and explain her solutions to me. I’m sure she’ll speed up with experience.

So far, she’s enjoying it much more than the textbook lesson. It’s fascinating to me how the mere hint of fantasy adventure can change graphing equations from boring to cool. Thanks, Dan!

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Pondering Large Numbers

[Feature photo above by Paolo Camera (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr.]

Half of our students were missing from this month’s homeschool teen math circle, but I challenged the three who did show up to wrap their brains around some large numbers. Human intuition serves us well for the numbers we normally deal with from day to day, but it has a hard time with numbers outside our experience. We did a simple yet fascinating activity.

First, draw a line across a page of your notebook. Label one end of the line $20 (the amount of money I had in my purse), and mark the other end as $1 trillion (rough estimate of the US government’s yearly overspending, the annual deficit):


  • Where on that line do you think $1 million would be?

Go ahead, try it! The activity has a much greater impact when you really do it, rather than just reading. Don’t try to over-think this, just mark wherever it feels right to you.

The kids were NOT eager to commit themselves, but I waited in silence until everyone made a mark.

  • Okay, now, where do you think $1 billion would be?

This was a bit easier. Once they had committed to a place for a million, they went about that much farther down the line to mark a billion.

Continue reading Pondering Large Numbers

Math Playtime With Blocks

Feature video by Stuart Jeckel via youtube.

DO Try This at Home

And ask questions!

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Algebra for (Almost) Any Age


Fawn Nguyen’s Visual Patterns website just keeps getting better and better. Check it out:

In addition to the 115 puzzle patterns (as of this writing), the site features a Gallery page of patterns submitted by students. And under the “Teachers” tab, Fawn shares a form to guide students in thinking their way through to the algebraic formula for a pattern.

How can you use these patterns to develop algebraic thinking with younger students? Mike Lawler and sons demonstrate Pattern #1 in the YouTube video below.

howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.

Logic: The Centauri Challenge

Another fun discovery from the #MTBoS Challenge: Brian Miller (@TheMillerMath) posted this interstellar puzzle on his blog today.

[Right-click image to download a pdf you can print for your students.]

More Logic Puzzles

If you liked the Centauri Challenge, you may also enjoy the following blog posts:

Puzzle: Algebra on Rectangles

Gordon Hamilton of Math Pickle recently posted these videos on how to make algebra 1 puzzles on rectangles. As I was watching, Kitten came in and looked over my shoulder. She said, “Those look like fun!”

They look like fun to me, too, and I bet your beginning algebra students will enjoy them:

Continue reading Puzzle: Algebra on Rectangles