**David Stipp is the author of the new book**

*A Most Elegant Equation: Euler's Formula & the Beauty of Mathematics*. He also has written the book*The Youth Pill*, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including*Scientific American*and*The New York Times*. He lives in Boston.*Q: You've said you were inspired to write your new book by acting as your son's high school math coach. How did that lead to the creation of this book?*

A: My son was driven to draw
from an early age, and by his junior year in high school it was clear that he’d
major in art in college. Not surprisingly, he found math classes very
boring—his math worksheets often featured elaborate doodles that he’d clearly
focused most of his attention on.

So I began wondering how I
might get him more interested in math. I had no wish to try to turn him into a
math lover like me, but I didn’t want him to lose out in the college entrance
game because of bad math grades.

In the end, he managed to do
OK in math. But after he left for college, it belatedly struck me that, like
many people, he’d never experienced how provocative, surprising, and beautiful
mathematics can be—math classes generally don’t convey that to people who
aren’t drawn to the subject.

Pondering that, I started
musing about taking math-averse people on a tour of a high point in math as a
time-efficient way to give them a sense for what’s deeply cool about the
subject. Then I ran across a survey of math experts that named Euler’s formula
as math’s most beautiful equation. That did it: I set out to write a revelatory
ode about math based on it.

At first I planned to just do
a short essay to explore whether I could explain the formula in a way that
might interest people who know little math and perhaps never liked it. (Which
includes my wife, who kindly served as a test reader.) But somehow things got
out of hand and I wound up writing a book.

*Q: "Its simple looks are deceiving," you write of Euler's formula. Why is that, and how would you describe the formula?*

A: Euler’s formula is an
equation with just five numbers—it has no arcane symbols, or even x’s.
Attributed to 18th century Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, it’s usually
written eiπ + 1 = 0. While three of the numbers are designated by letters—e, i
and π—its basic format is as simple as 1 + 1 = 2.

But it’s a stunner under the
hood. For one thing, the numbers are arguably math’s five most fundamental
quantities. They arose in different historical contexts and thus would seem to
be totally unrelated. Yet the equation suggests they’re closely connected—it’s
as if the top five lottery winners of all time turned out to be quintuplets who
were separated at birth and raised in different families.

And when you delve into the
formula you find a wonderful set of hidden connections among big ideas ranging
across the history of math.

They include the
circle-related number π (which turns up so often in math that one famous
mathematician said it even seems to come down the chimney), the number e
(another fascinating, Zelig-like player in math), the nature of irrational numbers
(whose discovery, legend has it, led to a murder in ancient Greece), and
infinity, perhaps the most deeply puzzling concept humans have ever pondered.

High school kids typically go
over these numbers and ideas without realizing they’re deeply linked. So I see
the formula as a kind of Rosetta Stone that can be used to reveal what a lot of
basic math means at a deeper, and more engaging, level than most people have
been given to understand.

*Q: Can your book be appreciated by math-phobes as well as those who love math?*

A: I wrote it assuming that
readers would know something about decimal numbers, fractions, percentages, and
the like—the basics needed, say, to calculate a tip—but wouldn’t necessarily remember
the algebra, geometry, etc. they covered in high school.

Truth be told, though, I did
include a number of equations, along with lots of explanatory hand-holding of
course—I felt that writing about math’s most beautiful equation without showing
some equations would be like doing a book on van Gogh’s "The Starry Night"
without including a sizable image of it.

But the book largely
describes rather than shows the math, and so I would hope that even confirmed
math-phobes might get a reasonably good idea from it about what makes great
math as provocative and beautiful as great art or literature.

*Q: What is Euler's legacy today?*

A: Euler was history’s most
prolific mathematical innovator, and his work is effectively embedded in
technology all around us—everything from the design of electrical circuits to
the analysis of online social networks.

Even Hollywood has taken
note: In the movie

*Hidden Figures*, one of the female NASA scientists featured in the film gets excited about using an approximating technique called “Euler’s method” to help determine trajectories for 1960s spacecraft.
Intriguingly, Euler’s formula
seemed to have little bearing on the real world at first, but about a century
after Euler died the math behind it was discovered to have a great many
applications in engineering and physics.

I find this deeply
interesting—it’s as if an abstract pattern in an 18th century tapestry were
later discovered to be a basic circuit design for amplifiers now used in everything
from radios to the internet. This sort of thing has occurred many times in math
history, and the book offers some possible explanations.

*Q: What are you working on now?*

A: At the moment I’m writing
an op-ed about math education—its venue remains to be seen. The point will be
that our national innumeracy problem (as one pundit put it, three out of two
Americans are confused by fractions) isn’t just a math-anxiety issue. It’s a
fear and loathing one.

And while educators have
tried hard to reduce math anxiety, they’ve paid comparatively little attention
to the fact that a large segment of the population actively dislikes math.
Typically, math hate becomes entrenched in high school. The article will
suggest ways to address this problem without greatly watering down the current
high school math curriculum.

*Q: Anything else we should know?*

A: You might be wondering
whether my son liked the book. Unfortunately, I can’t answer that yet. I
recently sent him a copy—he now works as an artist for a computer-game company
in LA—but he’s been too busy to read it while trying to meet a deadline.

I’m pretty sure he’ll delve
into it before long, though, and I told him that I’m looking forward to seeing
his copy after it’s been decorated with a lot of very impressive doodles.

**--Interview with Deborah Kalb**

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