“My name is J. J. Moon, and I’m an alien,” he said calmly.
The first line sounds like the beginning of a science fiction novel. But no, this is a book on… well, what is it about exactly? I suppose it’s a book about philosophy.
The book consists of 25 “Stories, Challenges, and Adventures in Mathematics,” or SCAMs. (If you like acronyms, then as the “Great Architect and World Designer” is my witness, you’ll get a kick out of this book.) The SCAMs are dialogues between J. J. Moon (a Ganymedean) and the unnamed writer. In the first SCAM, J. J. introduces the notion of the Mathematical Intelligence and Character Quotient. Not surprisingly, the aggregate MICQ for our planet is low: 27 (in the same range as defense lawyers and “language polluters”). In the second SCAM, he introduces the ten Mathematical Commandments (which include Thou shalt not divide by zero and Thou shalt denounce the evil of reformed calculus). According to J. J., following these ten commandments will raise our planetary MICQ to a respectable 50 or higher.
The remaining SCAMs are largely identical in structure: the writer goes to a math conference, goes into the hotel bar for coffee, and spots J. J. across the room. He approaches the alien, who gives him two or three math problems for his students and then launches into a screed on some societal topic, such as public education, mathematics education, political correctness, the criminal and civil legal system, or academic politics. The meeting ends with the writer providing J. J. with two or three jokes. At the end of the SCAM is the solution to J. J.’s math problems, followed by some mathematical dos and don’ts.
A lot of J. J.’s screeds sounded like excuses for Constanda to rail against many of society’s shortcomings. (As he says in the preface, “There is no doubt: the world is going to the dogs.”) But he does it with a nice collection of problems and jokes, so it turns out to be a fun read, and rather addictive. And very accessible: the math involved here isn’t particularly difficult, so anyone with a modest understanding of algebra can enjoy most of this book, although they might find the idea of mathematical ability as the key factor in intelligence to be somewhat arrogant. But then those of us with a proper MICQ know better.
Donald L. Vestal is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at South Dakota State University. His interests include number theory, combinatorics, spending time with his family, and working on his hot sauce collection. He can be reached at Donald.Vestal(AT)sdstate.edu.