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The Great Pi/e Debate

Mathematical Association of America

Statisticians, as the saying goes, are people who are good at math but don't have enough personality to be accountants. I would hate to think where that leaves mathematicians: people who are good with numbers but don't have enough personality to be statisticians? Of course mathematicians know otherwise, but just try convincing the general population, whose first word association with "mathematician" may be "pocket protector" followed closely by "nerd." It's tough battling stereotypes, encouraging all the non-mathematicians you know to watch The Great Pi/e Debate would be one small step in the right direction.

The Great Pi/e Debate is a videotaped "debate" over the relative merits of everyone's favorite transcendental numbers, pi and e, staged for the 1st Year Family Weekend at Williams College on October 29, 2005, which is now available on DVD from the Mathematical Association of America. The debate participants are math professors at Williams: Colin Adams states the case for pi, Thomas Garrity is e's champion, and Edward Burger serves as moderator.

The form of the debate is similar to what you may remember from high school: first each participant states the case for his chosen number, then each has a opportunity for rebuttal. There's even a winner chosen by popular acclaim. But The Great Pi/e Debate is really less a debate than a comedy of manners in which the debaters serve up the conventions of academic discourse in high style. Observers of our current political discourse will also recognize the contestants using many underhanded "debating" tactics frequently exercised in a less humorous context. It's very clever and funny, although I wouldn't dream of spoiling the fun by giving away any of the professors' arguments, let alone who wins: you'll have to watch the video yourself to find that out. Who knows, maybe The Great Pi/e Debate will become an annual event which may someday rival in popularity the University of Chicago's latke/hamentash debates!

The Great Pi/e Debate is suitable for high school students and up, and younger students with a mathematical bent may enjoy it also. Not only will the students they be reminded of some of the basic facts of mathematics, they may even be convinced that math, and mathematicians, can be fun. At 40 minutes, this DVD fits nicely into the typical class period. Working mathematicians will also enjoy The Great Pi/e Debate, particularly those who want to take a brief and imaginary trip back to academia. Even the lack of technological sophistication is charming to those of us who live in the PowerPoint world: Professor Adams illustrates his arguments with transparencies on an overhead projector, while Professor Garrity writes on the blackboard. The one-camera setup and occasional sound glitches may also awaken nostalgic recollections of the AV department of your high school or college years.

Colin Adams is the Francis Christopher Oakley Third Century Professor of Mathematics at Williams College. Dr. Adams has published numerous articles and three books and is no stranger to the lighter side of mathematics, having created the character "Mel Slugbate," real estate agent in hyperbolic space, which he plays on several videos. Thomas Garrity is Professor of Mathematics at Williams College, where he was awarded the Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Distinguished Teaching Award in 1998 and the Cherry Award for Great Teaching in 2003. Dr. Garrity has numerous publications, including the book All the Mathematics You Missed[But Need to Know for Graduate School] (Cambridge, 2002). Edward Burger is the Chair of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Williams College and has published numerous journal articles, books and multimedia materials.

Sarah Boslaugh is a Performance Analyst for BJC HealthCare and an adjunct professor at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. She has written two books, An Intermediate Guide to SPSS Programming: Using Syntax for Data Management (Sage, 2005) and Secondary Data Sources for Public Health: A Practical Guide (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2007) and is editor-in-chief of The Encyclopedia of Epidemiology (forthcoming from Sage, 2007).

Date Received: 
Friday, October 27, 2006
Include In BLL Rating: 
Colin Adams and Thomas Garrity
Publication Date: 
Sarah Boslaugh
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Modify Date: 
Monday, December 31, 2007


akirak's picture

Although I have enjoyed Colin Adams's humorous presentations before and although I respect the professional qualifications of both "debaters," I was disappointed in the dearth of mathematical content in this DVD. I think the constant tomfoolery (pun intended) was perfect for its intended Parents' Day audience at Williams, but I question the wisdom of packaging and selling this performance to a more mathematically sophisticated audience.