Neil and the Julia Robinson Math Festival

A few months ago, Neil participated in the Math Counts competition, which was enlightening and humbling. The program was great: all through the year, he had to work out tough mathematical challenges. In February, the Silicon Valley chapter put the students who’d been in the program to the test. It turns out, that compared to hard-core, driven Silicon Valley Asian math geeks, Neil is just average. That said, Asian Silicon Valley math geeks are frighteningly fast and brilliant, and it’s kind of an honor to have my child within their ranks.

Through one of my homeschooling lists, I heard about the Julia Robinson Math Festival, which seemed more like Neil’s scene: an afternoon with other middle- and high-school math fans solving mathematical puzzles. The program is completely volunteer-run so they asked me to volunteer some time helping get the students registered and accounted for. Neil went on into the festival while Kelly was decorating a very pretty sign.

When we were done, I went into the room where the festival was taking place. All throughout it, tables were set up with various puzzles, and any time a student solved a puzzle correctly he or she received a ticket for a book raffle. I found Neil towards the back of the room, and asked him how it was going.

He was delighted. “I just met Bill Gosper!” And then remembering that I haven’t read A New Kind of Science five times like he has, Neil added, “Bill Gosper is the inventor of the Gosper Glider Gun!” (Neil is my comeuppance for my dislike of math in high school.) I nodded and smiled, and guessed the Gosper Glider Gun was some sort of cellular automata thing. (Sigh, and now I know what cellular automata is.) It turns out I was right; Bill Gosper is what you might call a cellular automata pioneer. In any case, the fact that Neil met a mathematics genius, who just happened to have given up his day in order to help high school math students at Stanford, was certainly an honor and a surprise. Of course, today of all days, I’d left my camera at home, so I had to make do with catching to occassion with my cell phone:


It turns out, Bill Gosper was super nice, and had been delighted to meet Neil, too. Neil had solved the puzzle Gosper had set up for the festival, in record time, and in an original way. Now Neil’s corresponding with Gosper, and I am just agog. Within this year, he also got to meet Mitch Resnick and the Scratch team at MIT, and more recently got into a lively discussion with a friend of ours who may soon become a math professor at the University of Minnesota. I plan on sending my son to college, but it turns out he already has surprising access to the brilliant mathematical minds I could only hope for him to meet there.

Neil happily continued working on math puzzles, and Kelly quickly befriended Dewina, another young sister of a math fiend. When Kelly’s friend left I took Kelly across campus to see the Stanford art museum. On the way, we passed by the Hoover Pavillion, which often has an interesting exhibit. Right now, the exhibit was The Road to World War II. As with the Pasternak exhibit I saw several years ago, it was well done, and awfully interesting and informative.

Regrettably, by the time we got to the art museum, our time was running short, so we rushed through it. There was a too-somber exhibit on the mourning for Leland Stanford, Jr., but I had fun showing Kelly how to pose like the Degas and Rodin sculptures, and that the driftwood horse was actually made of bronze.

Dewina’s mother had told me the end-of-festival lecture was usually very good, so I planned on seeing it. It turned out to be on eight-dimensional tic-tac-toe, something way more to Neil’s interests than mine. Luckily, Dewina had come back, and Kelly happily continued playing with her until the festival’s end. The other good thing about this festival was that is was a networking center for all sorts of other math programs and clubs in the area, like the San Jose Math Circle. So now there are more math events for Neil to enjoy his math love at, because I know I can’t keep up with him already.

1 Comment

  1. Hollis

    Hi Carolyn, I’m a proud 25 y/o father of a 7 year old boy and, while I didn’t have an interest in mathematics and physics at his age, I’m starting to see the fun now. How did you encourage/foster Neil’s interest in math? Was it due to your homeschooling him, or has he always had this passion? I’m asking because I’d like Sam to start to see how much fun this can be – most of the people I know who are passionate about math started young, so I wonder if it can be inculcated in Sam.

    cjb responds: Hi, Hollis. Neil always had an innate interest in math; it came naturally, not due to anything I did. However, I do recommend the Family Math books from the Lawrence Hall of Science. They have math games which work at a variety of levels, and they’re fun. All the best with your son–it fun to see your child develop and discover his gifts, whatever they may be.


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