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Riot at the Calc Exam and Other Mathematically Bent Stories

Colin Adams
American Mathematical Society
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Gregory P. Dresden
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Many of you will recall the funny news parody article, “Math Riots Prove Fun Incalculable” by Eric Zorn, which appeared some fifteen years ago, immediately after Andrew Wiles first announced his proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. It’s easy to find on the Internet, but let me quote the first few lines to refresh your memory.

Yes, admittedly, there was rioting and vandalism last week during the celebration. A few bookstores had windows smashed and shelves stripped, and vacant lots glowed with burning piles of old dissertations. But overall we can feel relief that it was nothing — nothing — compared to the outbreak of exuberant thuggery that occurred in 1984 after Louis DeBranges finally proved the Bieberbach Conjecture.

“Math hooligans are the worst,” said a Chicago Police Department spokesman. “But the city learned from the Bieberbach riots. We were ready for them this time.”

If you remember that article with pleasure, then you will probably also enjoy Colin Adams’ Riot at the Calc Exam. In 33 short stories (most of which are taken from his column in the Mathematical Intelligencer) Colin Adams writes some pretty funny mathematical tales, covering everything from the job interview to theorem proving to mathematical couture (the last in a hilarious play-by-play description of an imaginary fashion show given by various math departments). The theorem or proof that turns out to be not exactly correct, and the anguish this causes, is a fairly common theme, and it appears in various stories in metaphor form as a sinking ship hit by a counterexample (while grad students jump ship), as a critically-ill patient in the OR (with PhD surgeons called in to do what they can), and as an unreachable mountain peak (with researchers nearly wiped out by an avalanche of failed conjectures).

The collection also includes a Jules Verne-themed “Journey to the Center of Mathematics” adventure story, two tongue-in-cheek columns on mathematical ethics, and a horror story about math anxiety, to name just a few. My favorite question to the mathematical ethicist is, “I have gotten in the habit of throwing a lavish banquet for my students the evening before I hand out the student course evaluations each semester. My question is whether or not it is appropriate to have the students fill out the forms at the banquet…”

While one or two of the stories do tend to drag on for a bit, most are quite funny, and the story “Phone Interview” had me laughing out loud. None of the stories require any mathematical sophistication to enjoy, although the author does include notes at the end of the book to give context to some of the mathematical references in the stories.

I think that any student would be able to enjoy this book, and it might provide them some much-needed levity after a long afternoon of homework. Of course, no discussion of math humor is complete without a reference to the Renteln and Durdes article “Foolproof: A Sampling of Mathematical Folk Humor” in the January 2005 issue of the AMS Notices, although many of those jokes are more appropriate for faculty or grad students. Colin Adams’ stories are all original, and can be read by just about anyone.

Greg Dresden is Associate Professor of Mathematics at Washington and Lee University.