If you would like a new "hook" to help get your general education students excited about mathematics, I recommend that you add Andy Vazsonyi's memoirs, Which Door Has the Cadillac: Adventures of a Real Life Mathematician, to your syllabus. Andy has led an amazing life, and he tells his story with humor and grace. The paperback is a fun and easy read, so students may get caught up in it without even realizing it, and without realizing that they are learning about mathematics along the way. At the very least, students will be intrigued that you assigned a book that has chapters with titles such as "I Hate Numbers" and "Invisible Mathematics."
You may be surprised to find that a student or two even recognize Andy's name, as my 19-year-old nephew did when he saw the book. Though not particularly fond of math, my nephew immediately recognized Andy as the man who used mathematical modeling to help save the critically important P51 Mustang plane in the 1940s. The story of the Mustang is one of many appealing stories included in this charming book.
In fact, mathematics and engineering undergraduate and graduate students should be encouraged to read the book as well, to help them imagine how full and wonderful a life of mathematics can be. Seeing how one person is involved in "pure" math as well as in many applications in business and engineering is quite inspiring. To have the stories told in such an entertaining fashion is a bonus.
The book is a whirlwind of stories of a unique and talented man, and is a great book for anyone, mathematician or not, who would like a fun, breezy read chronicling an amazing life. The style is reminiscent of Richard Feynman at his best, with genius and humor mixed brilliantly.
Even the title Which Door Has the Cadillac has an interesting story behind it. Remember all the letters and proposed solutions (and counter solutions) a few years ago in response to an "Ask Marilyn" column concerning a "Let's Make a Deal" situation? Marilyn's answer to whether one should change one's choice of three doors where a prize is hidden, after being shown that one of the doors not chosen is a dud, set off a flurry of passionate responses in the popular and technical presses. Andy weaves this into his book, and uses it to introduce his readers to how he sees the world through a lens of mathematics.
The book includes the best of Andy's stories, many amusing, some serious. Included are stories about Andy's escape from the Nazis, his new mathematical life in American industry, his experiences as an academic, and his "non-retirement" as a researcher and writer. Along the way, we learn, for example, that Andy Vazsonyi is the "Weiszfeld" of 1934's Weiszfeld Algorithm, an algorithm that finds the point that minimizes the sum of the distances from N given points.
During Andy's adventures, we meet a wide array of familiar names such as Paul Erdos (Andy's childhood and lifelong friend), Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon, and John von Neumann.
Each of us readers will have our favorite stories. Professionals especially will appreciate the antics of Andy's "colleague" Zepartzatt Gozinto. (Be sure to say that name out loud.) Students may be surprised to learn of the wide variety of math applications in the "real" world, all explained without equations. The stories of Andy's childhood in Hungary are particularly compelling, as he learned math alongside Paul Erdos. The paths of these two prodigies diverged, with Erdos remaining in the world of "pure" math, and Vazsonyi eventually discovering his love of applying math to the "real world" of business, engineering, and society. Andy's stories of when their lives intersected over the years are some of the best in the book.
Writing was and remains a constant for Andy. He has written over 90 technical articles, and eight books, including 1956's much translated, widely used, optimization/operations research text Scientific Programming in Business and Industry.
I recommend Andy's website referred to on the back cover: http://www.reallifemath.com. It has delightful pieces with titles including "Ten-Minute Mathematician" and "Tyranny and Magic of Formulas." Andy also writes an always interesting and sometimes provocative monthly column, "The Specialist With the Universal Mind" for the Decision Science Institute's magazine Decision Line. Current and past columns can be found at http://www.decisionsciences.org/Newsletter/index.htm.
We're lucky Andy decided to gather his stories in this delightful book.
Nancy C. Weida (firstname.lastname@example.org
) is management department chair and associate professor of decision sciences at Bucknell University.