One is the loneliest prime number

You can’t prove 1 is, or is not, prime. You have the freedom to choose whether to include 1 as a prime or not and this choice is either guided by convenience or credulity.

I occasionally get some cruel and bitter criticism from an odd source. I’m putting my response here for two reasons: (1) so I that I can simply refer them to it and not have to repeat myself or engage in the equally impersonal displeasure of internet arguments, and (2) I think there is something interesting to be learned about mathematics, logic, and knowledge more generally.

It all started when I wrote a very controversial book about an extremely taboo topic: mathematics. In my book ABCs of Mathematics, “P is for Prime”. The short, child-friendly description I gave for this was:

A prime number is only divisible by 1 and itself.

I thought I did a pretty good job of reducing the concept and syllables down to a level palatable by a young reader. Oh, boy, was I wrong. Enter: the angriest group of people I have met on the internet.

You see, by the given definition, I had to include 1 as a prime number since, as we should all agree, it is divisible only by 1 and itself.

Big mistake. Because, apparently, it has been drilled into people’s heads that this is a grave error, a misconception that can eventually lead young impressionable minds to a life of crime and possibly even death! It might even end up on a list of banned books!

By a vast majority, people love the book. I am generally happy with the reponse. The baby books I write are not for everyone—I get that. And I do try to take advice from all the feedback I receive on my books. There is always room for improvement. But the intense emotions some people have with the idea of 1 being a prime number is truly perplexing. Here are some examples:

I actually love the book, but there is a big mistake. The number 1 is not a prime number! The book should not be sold like this and needs to be reprinted.

and

1 IS NOT PRIME! How could a supposed math book have an error like this in it? I am disgusted!

Yikes. So what gives? Is 1 prime, or not? The answer is: that’s not a valid question.

Let me explain.

First, let’s look at a typical definition. Compare to, for example, Wikipedia’s entry on prime numbers:

A prime number (or a prime) is a natural number greater than 1 that cannot be formed by multiplying two smaller natural numbers.

Much more precise—no denying that. It’s grammatically correct, but probably hard to parse. I wanted to avoid negative definitions as much as I could in my books. But that’s beside the point. The reason 1 is not a prime is that the definition of prime itself is contorted to exclude it!

OK, so why is that? Well, the answer is probably not as satisfying as you might like: convenience. By excluding 1 as prime, one can state other theorems more concisely. Take the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic, for example:

Every integer greater than 1 either is a prime number itself or can be represented as the product of prime numbers and that, moreover, this representation is unique, up to (except for) the order of the factors.

Now, this statement would not be true if 1 were a prime since, for example, 6 = 2 × 3 but also 6 = 2 × 3 × 1 and also 6 = 2 × 3 × 1 × 1, etc. That is, if 1 were prime, the representation would not be unique and the theorem would be false.

However, if we do chose to include 1 as a prime number, all is not lost. Then the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic would still be true if it were stated as:

Every integer is a prime number itself or can be represented as the product of prime numbers and that, moreover, this representation is unique, up to (except for) the order of the factors and the number of 1’s.

Which version do you prefer? In either case, both the definition and theorem treat 1 as a special number. I’d argue that in this context, the number 1 is more of an annoyance that gets in the way of the deeper concept behind the theorem. But in mathematics you must be precise with your language. And so 1 must be dealt with as an awkward special case no matter which way you slice it.

So, is 1 prime, or not? Well, it depends on how you define it. But in the end it doesn’t really matter, so long as you are consistent. And understanding that is a much bigger lesson than memorizing some fact you were told in grade school.

The definition given in ABCs of Mathematics is not wrong” any more than all of the other simplifications and analogies I have made are “wrong”. But, in case you were wondering, the second printing will be modified with the hope that everyone can enjoy the book. Even the angry people on the internet deserve to be happy.

Why are there so many symbols in math?

“Mathematics is the language of the universe.” — every science popularizer ever

I am a mathematician. In fact, I have a PhD in mathematics. But, I am terrible at arithmetic. Confused? I certainly would have been if a self-proclaimed mathematician told me that 15 years ago.

The answer to this riddle is simple: math is not numbers. Whenever a glimpse of my research is seen by nearly anyone but another mathematician, they ask where the numbers are. It’s just a bunch of gibberish symbols, they say.

IMG_20171212_090428
The whiteboard in my office on 12 December 2017.

Well, they are right. Without speaking the language, it is just gibberish. But why—why all these symbols?

The symbols are necessary because communicating the ideas requires it. A simple analogy is common human language.

Mandarin Chinese, for example, has many more like-sounding syllables than English. This has led to a great number of visual puns, which have become a large part of Chinese culture. For example, the phrase 福到了(“fortune has arrived”) sounds the same as 福倒了(“fortune is upside down”). Often you will see the character 福 (“fortune”, fú, which you pronounce as ‘foo’ with an ascending pitch) upside down. While, like most puns, this has no literal meaning, it denotes fortune has arrived.

Fudao
Fudao, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30725479

Not laughing? OK, well, not even English jokes are funny when they have to be explained, but you get the idea. This pun just doesn’t translate to English. (Amusingly, there is also no simple common word for pun in Chinese.)

The point here is that upside down 福, with its intended emotional response, is not something you can even convey in English. The same is true in mathematics. Ideas can be explained in long-winded and confusing English sentences, but it is much easier if symbols are used.

And, there really is a sense in which the symbols are necessary. Much like the example of 福, most mathematicians use symbols in a way that is just impossible to translate to English, or any other language, without losing most of the meaning.

Here is a small example. In the picture above you will see p(x|θ). First, why θ? (theta, the eighth letter of the Greek alphabet, by the way). That’s just convention—mathematicians love Greek letters. So, you could replace all the θ’s by another symbol and the meaning wouldn’t change. It’s like the difference between writing Chinese using characters or pinyin: 拼音 = pīnyīn.

You might think that it is weird to mix symbols, such as Roman and Greek, but it now very common in many languages, particularly in online conversations. For example, Chinese write 三Q to mean “thank you”, because 三 is 3 and, in English, 3Q sounds like ‘thank you”. In English, and probably all languages now, emojis are mixed with the usual characters to great effect. You could easily write, “Have a nice day. By the way, my mood is happy and I am trying to convey warmth while saying this.” But, “Have a nice day :)” is much easier, and actually better at conveying the message.

OK, so we are cool with Greek letters now, how about  p(x|θ)? That turns out to be easy to translate—it means “the probability of x given θ.” Unfortunately, much like any statement, context is everything. In this case, not even a mathematician could tell you exactly what p(x|θ) means since they have not been told what x or θ means. It like saying “Bob went to place to get thing that she asked for.” An English speaker recognises this as a grammatically correct sentence, but who is “she”, what is the “thing”, and what is the “place”? No one can know without context.

What the English speaker knows is that (probably) a man, named Bob, went to store to purchase something for a woman, whose name we don’t know. The amazing thing is that many more sentences could follow this and an English speaker could easily understand without the context. Have you ever read or listened to a story in which the characters are never named or described? You probably filled in your own context to make the story understandable for you. Maybe that invented context is fluid and changes as you hear more of the story.

The important point is that such actions are not taught. They come from experience—from being immersed in the language and a culture built from it. The same is true in mathematics. A mathematician with experience in probability theory could follow most of what is written on that whiteboard, or at least get the gist of it, without knowing the context. This isn’t something innate or magical—it’s just experience.

Daily activities to promote mathematical fluency in kids

An outline of a day in my life of practicing mathematical literacy. These are activities I do with all my children, ages 0, 3, 5 and 7.

If you perform an internet search on some topic of interest, say “math puzzles for kids”, you end up with literally millions of pages. It can be overwhelming. But, just pick one and go! Don’t over-prepare or have high expectations or push too hard—the vast majority of experiments fail. In fact, failure is one of the most important ways we learn.

Below is an outline of a day in my life of practicing mathematical literacy. These are activities I do with all my children, ages 0, 3, 5 and 7. I may spend longer on the more complex information or tasks with my 7 year old, but I don’t shield my 3 year old completely from it.

Numeracy

I try to constantly be aware of when I am internalizing numbers or mathematical concepts and then encourage my children to participate. These are all things I usually do silently and unconsciously, but now ask my children. Just this morning I have done the following: I asked the children to read the clock; add change; discuss routes on our daily errand run; count and weigh fruits and vegetables; ask how long is left in a video; set a timer on my phone; ask how many crossings are required to tie a shoelace; and so on.

Puzzles

There are many puzzles and games you can play that can promote and improve mathematical thinking which are branded or advertised as math games. For example, today we played the following games: Tic-tac-toe, Dots and Boxes, made mazes, played some Lego (classic blocks), and built a dodecahedron with a magnetic construction set.

Books

Attempting to connect young minds with abstract ideas is relatively new. Our bookshelf contains: Introductory Calculus For Infants by Omi M. Inouye; Non-Euclidean Geometry for Babies and The Pythagorean Theorem for Babies by Fred Carlson; and a great deal of children’s and adult reference books and encyclopedias. Of course, some nights we can’t get through enough Harry Potter and the math has to wait.

Videos

YouTube is a blessing and a curse in our house. We don’t generally let the kids watch without supervision as the value seems to be quite low without constant feedback and discussion. Today we watched a few episodes of Amoeba Sisters and I showed them some MinutePhysics, which is directed more toward adults. I keep those sessions short as the language is often too complex.

Drawing

Drawing and coloring are great ways to relax and have many cognitive benefits. Sometimes I need to give them something to imitate by joining in and other times, like today, I just put a blank sheet and some markers out. My 3 year old has recently graduated from scribbling to drawing discernible faces and intentional shapes. The other day, my 7 year old found Art for Kids Hub, a fun and engaging set of drawing tutorials which has boosted her confidence quite a bit.

Coding

Getting children into computer programming has received a lot of attention in the past couple of years. Each of my 3, 5 and 7 years olds play the games and go through the exercises on Code.org. I find it very helpful when they work simultaneously or in a pair. We didn’t do any coding today on the computer, but we did play Robot Turtles, a board game meant to teach coding skills.

We also went to the park and ran around in circles screaming, for no reason in particular.

Phew! Even when I write it all out, it looks like a lot. But, it only adds up to a few hours spread over an entire day—time I would be spending with them anyway. I try to make life rewarding and engaging not only for them, but for me as well.

What does it mean to excel at math?

“In mathematics you don’t understand things. You just get used to them.” ― John von Neumann

John von Neumann made important scientific discoveries in physics, computer science, statistics, economics, and mathematics itself. He was, by all accounts, a genius. Yet, here he is saying he “just got used” to mathematics. While this was probably a tongue-in-cheek reply to a friend, there is some truth to it. Mathematics is a language and anyone can eventually learn to speak it.

Indeed,balls_to_sphere mathematics is the language by which scientists of all fields communicate—from philosophy to physics. And by mathematics, I don’t mean numbers. Scientists communicate ideas through mental pictures which are often represented by symbols invented just for that purpose. Here is an example: think about a ball. Maybe it is a baseball, or a basketball, or—if you are in Europe—a socc…err… football. Maybe it is the Earth or the Sun. Now try to get rid of the details: the stitching, the colors, the size. What is left? A sphere. You just performed the process of abstraction. A sphere is an idea, a mental image that you can’t touch—it doesn’t exist!

sphere_to_ballWhy is this important, anyway? Well, if I can prove things about spheres, then that ought to apply to any ball in the real world. So, formulas for area and volume, for example, equally apply to baseballs, basketballs, soccer balls, and any other ball. Mathematics is a very powerful way of answering infinitely many questions at once!

Now, it is said that to become an expert at anything, you need 10,000 hours of practice. While not a hard-and-fast rule, it seems to work out in terms of acquiring modern language—10,000 hours probably works out to mid-to-late teens for an adept student. Usually, we don’t start practicing real mathematics until well after we have mastered our first language, in late high-school or college. Why not start those 10,000 hours now with your children?

Sounds great, but where do you start? The bad news is that there are no simple rules. The good news is that it doesn’t really matter where you start. With your children, you could practice numeracy, practice puzzles and games, read books, watch science videos, try to code, draw pictures, or just sit in a quiet room and think. As you do these things, encourage generalization and abstraction. Ask questions and let your child ask questions. The correct answers are not important—it is the process that counts.

I was asked recently to share some tips for parents who want their kids to excel at math and do well in the classroom later on. The trouble is, doing well in the classroom—that is, doing well on standardized tests—doesn’t necessarily correlate with understanding the language of mathematics. If you want to do well on standardized tests, then just practice standardized tests. However, if you want your kids to have the powerful tools of abstraction​ at their disposal and possibly also do well on tests, then teach them the language of mathematics.