Dr. Arthur Benjamin
Dr. Benjamin is a Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College. He was the 2012-2013 Joanna Nichols Visiting Scholar.
For the first four weeks of the 2012-2013 school year, students were treated to daily displays of Mathemagics, the astounding brand of mathematics performance and teaching of Dr. Arthur Benjamin, the second annual Joanna Nichols Visiting Scholar. If students happened to have an urgent need to know within a matter of seconds the square of a four-digit number, or the day of the week on which they were born, or perhaps understand how advanced mathematics can be applied in engineering or robotics, they had an unmatched resource available right here at TAS. Dr. Benjamin’s goal during his stay was to broaden student’s horizons, illuminate the fun, creativity, and endless possibilities and applications that mathematics presents, and ultimately to encourage an approach focused “not just on solving X, but figuring out Y.”
TAS students made him feel at home with their hunger for learning and respectful behavior.
Dr. Benjamin is a world-renowned presenter and scholar. One of his entertaining and informative TED talks has been viewed nearly four and a half million (approximately 21212) times. He is also a professor of Mathematics at the prestigious Harvey Mudd College in California, home to eight hundred students (including three TAS alumni), all STEM majors. Dr. Benjamin described Harvey Mudd as a liberal arts college of engineering with the goal of cultivating leaders who not only know the technical side of engineering, but also understand the impact and applications of their technical skills. He said that TAS students made him feel at home with their hunger for learning and respectful behavior.
Student enthusiasm for Dr. Benjamin was very clear, “amazing…mind blowing,” said Cheryl K. ’13. After performing shows for the 4th and 5th grades, where he outraced calculators, constructed magic squares, and otherwise dazzled with his mental acrobatics, Dr. Benjamin was swarmed by students eager to learn more clever tricks and patterns. Middle school students, upper school students, faculty, parents, and alumni who saw his energetic performances were no less amazed or delighted. Although the tips and approaches he shared may well help students improve their AP Calculus scores, or allow them to impress their peers with ridiculous calculations, the essential lesson Dr. Benjamin hoped to share was that curiosity, ingenuity, experimentation, and flexibility in problem solving can allow you to accomplish the seemingly impossible, and then go on to imagine even more.
“Find work that makes you happy.”
Dr. Benjamin maintained a busy daily schedule at TAS, teaching at least two classes every day. He was a regular in math classes such as Linear Algebra and Calculus, but in between his large assemblies and involvement in student extracurricular activities like the math club and the new backgammon club he helped establish, he also contributed to classes in other subject areas. For example, he led a discussion in a Theory of Knowledge (TOK) class that touched on mind bending issues such as the relative size of infinity, whether math is invented of discovered, and the secret to life (luckily, Dr. Benjamin regularly broke the magician’s code and shared his secrets, and this one was: “Find work that makes you happy”).
According to Lauren L. ’13, “His presentations in both math and TOK were extremely eye-opening because they highlighted the ways in which math could actually be fun and interesting to the ordinary student. Dr. Benjamin was able to portray problem-solving as less of a task, and as more of an intellectual exploration, selling his “Mathemagic” to all students within his classroom.” Joyce L. ’13 echoed similar sentiments,
“Honestly, he was brilliant… he had this knack of bringing everything together and relating it back to math, so that math became fun and interesting but also easy to understand and apply. What made him stand out was definitely his passion for math – his enthusiasm for his subject was infectious.”
Reflecting on his path to becoming a Mathemagician, Dr. Benjamin explained that he didn’t necessarily pursue this unique career by design. Instead, he believes that he found a perfect outlet for two defining characteristics that came to him naturally: the inclination to be a joker and entertainer, and a love for numbers and patterns that came to him early on in life. He recalled how he would spend bus rides as a child looking out the window and multiplying numbers on license plates, gaining a facility and familiarity with numbers that has clearly taken him a long way.
Dr. Benjamin came to TAS this fall to share his love of numbers and patterns with our students. At the end of his visit, he expressed the hope that his time here will leave students with broadened horizons and an appreciation for the beauty of mathematical theory and structure, the fun and creative process of exploring STEM fields, and the vast array of possibilities that these fields present. While he considers math to be the “only subject where absolute certainty is possible,” he stressed that continuous curiosity about the different ways mathematics can be used, along with the ability to effectively communicate and share those applications, are equally or more important than the basic ability to calculate numerical solutions.