The story was pretty much as I remembered it. A seemingly ordinary 10-year-old boy of humble origins blows away the ogre-like village schoolmaster with his ability to add up a series of one hundred numbers in his head. Feeling pretty pleased with himself, the boy then goes on to become the famous nineteenth-century German mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss.
I had remembered this story from E.T. Bell’s classic history, Men of Mathematics, a book that I somehow stumbled upon when I was 11 and in the throes of considering what to be when I grew up. Upon reading about Gauss, I wondered if I would have to wait that long.
Unlike a lot of stuffier career paths, math seemed to favor the young. And Gauss was hardly the only impressive “pre-teen of mathematics” in Bell’s book, which made the whole subject seem more like summer camp than school.
Camp Wunderkind. Where show-offy, smarty-pants behavior is encouraged, nay, even rewarded.
And for those college-age readers who might have felt it was too late for them, that they’d already missed the boat, there was Isaac Newton, who discovered calculus at the ripe old age of 22.
As it turned out, though, I was more interested in the lives of mathematicians than actual math. I’m not sure whether I began to have my suspicions in Algebra I or II, but by the time Trigonometry and Precalculus rolled around, I was certain I would not be signing up for Camp Wunderkind.
Still, old dreams die hard. The other day I stumbled upon the E.T. Bell book in the bottom of a drawer. After becoming reacquainted with Gauss’ early start on the road to genius, I found myself wishing for a different sort of mathematical coming-of-age story, one that would reflect my current age and life situation.
So here goes. In this inspiring tale from what I will call “Late Bloomers of Mathematics,” a guy in his 40s is about to doze off on his living room couch. He is roused from well-deserved slumber, though, by the snapping of a pencil in two and the thud of a calculator hitting the floor. A half-muffled oath confirms that, over on the other side of the room, his 12-year-old son and algebra have come to a parting of the ways.
“Let me have a look at your homework. See if I can help.”
Having watched his father try to balance a checkbook, the boy is skeptical at first, but pretty soon it’s all coming back: quadratic equations, imaginary numbers, the difference between a parabola and a squiggly line.
“But that part –”
“Has more than one variable. Which explains the graph over here.” It’s been a long time since anyone has heard the guy on the couch sound so masterful, so sure he knows what he’s doing.
“Wow, Dad, I had no idea. Did you, like, invent this stuff?” says the taken-by-surprise youngster when it’s all over, every problem solved. Obviously, his father’s talents are wasted on the checkbook.
“This isn’t even the half of it. I can show you a formula for estimating how much money you’re likely to spend on online downloads over a given period of time. Also a trick for adding all the numbers from 1 to 100 in your head. Really impress your teacher.”
“That’s good because I could use some extra credit,” his son says right before fainting in amazement.
But when “Late Bloomers of Mathematics” picks up again, this middle-aged math prodigy has moved on. He is now developing a formula that will allow him to guess at the sum total of all his outstanding checks. And it is here that “Late Bloomers of Mathematics” leaves him: confident, or rather, modest, in the knowledge that, as Newton put it, if he is able “to see farther than others, it is because he is standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Namely, his wife. Who will be checking his work with a calculator.