A Visit from Bill Gosper

A few weeks ago, Neil happened to meet famous mathematician Bill Gosper at the Julia Robinson Math Festival. Gosper and Neil kept in touch via email afterwards (both keeping me in the loop). Finally, Peter and I dared to invite Gosper over for dinner. He accepted, at which point Peter and I wondered whatever could we say to keep up our end of the conversation. We decided Neil could do the talking for both of us, and we’d just try to shut up, because speaking would only expose how little we knew, and how very much we’d forgotten.

As it turns out, it was a wonderful evening. Almost upon arriving (and after giving Neil some gifts which included Mandelbrot’s book, which Neil’s only previously had from the library), Gosper turned on his lapbook and proceeded to give Neil the most amazing advanced mathematics lesson. I was busy trying to figure out the Sam Loyd buttonhold trap he’d set up and munching on some Indian restaurant snacks Gosper had brought, but at a certain point, I figured I ought to peek over Neil’s shoulder on this. It involved Fibonacci’s numbers, fractions, and the multiplication of matrices (which I have to proudly say I’d just taught Neil two months ago), together with asides about how mathematical computation software programs work, and anecdotes about other famous mathematicians. I tried to pull Peter out of the kitchen to check it out, but he was still busy cooking.

By the time Peter had gotten the lasagna into the oven, Gosper was showing Neil how to compare apples to oranges. More specifically, he showed him how Macsyma can convert, say, miles per gallon to acres. As an aside, I have to point out that the mental speed Gosper was working on was the one I have to throttle Neil back from a lot, i.e. turbo. Normal people, like me, have to see the steps to a result in order to understand it. Luckily, just 2 or 3 weeks ago, the chemistry lecture we watched for C&S dealt with conversions, so I understood the steps between 23 miles per gallon and and acres (hint, it’s an inverted number!) but I had to fill that in myself.

Neil seemed to be following along just fine, so once again I’m lost on what to do for his education. I had to toss the Algebra II course I’d planned to give him because I looked at it and saw it covered subjects Neil’s already done. I’m going to test him through (and maybe out) of another text, which includes some stuff I’m not sure he knows, but then what? Trigonometry? Probability? Calculus?

The lesson ended when dinner was ready. Oh, and did I mention Bill Gosper also happens to be friends with the guy who invented the aerobie? So he brought Neil two aerobies signed to him by Alan Adler. We went out to the nearby schoolground to toss aerobies (not the signed ones) and other flying objects until it became dark. Then we showed Gosper our Khet game, which got a pass for its bad laser sights. Instead, Gosper loaned Neil a cube packing puzzle to solve, which he had to wait until morning to solve because it was his bedtime.

So it’s not every day you get to have a famous mathematician visit, so it was really cool. I fell asleep and dreamt of mathematical equations, which has never happened to me before.

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