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What shall we talk about?

What shall we talk about? New book by UC Riverside mathematician has 777 suggestions

(January 13, 2003)

Author John de Pillis with Jay Leno, host of the Tonight Show, NBC.

Author John de Pillis with Jay Leno, host of the Tonight Show, NBC.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. - Ever had difficulty getting a conversation started? John de Pillis, emeritus professor of mathematics at UC Riverside, has useful suggestions to help us out.

His new book "777 Mathematical Conversation Starters" (The Mathematical Association of America, 2002, 368 pages) shows that there are few degrees of separation between mathematics and topics that provoke interesting conversations.

The topics presented in this unique book are accessible to mathematicians and non-mathematicians alike. They include thought-provoking conversation starters, such as: the value of fame; why language matters; the anatomy of thought; how we know what we know; how the Pythagorean theorem (with very little physics) shows that Einstein was correct about time dilation and distance contraction; and, how mathematics produces intuition-defying examples.

The crossover book presents material that is of interest to the curious reader who may or may not have advanced mathematical training. There is material for those who choose to explore special relativity at an elementary level, while those who wish to delve more deeply are provided with detailed equations and explanations.

Examples of talking points covered in the book are: How does the dry spot under a car after rain illustrate the difference between induction and deduction? Why was Monty Hall upset when mathematicians analyzed the Monty Hall problem? When does one bite of a potato become a life-altering experience? How can a finite amount of ink paint an infinite surface? And what is often referred to as "the weirdest result" in mathematics?

"Curiosity is the catalyst for mathematical exploration," said Pamela Clute, executive director of the Alpha Center at UC Riverside and a lecturer in mathematics and education at the university. "De Pillis's book captures one's curiosity almost immediately. It is the ideal book for stimulating interest in a field of study often seen by far too many learners as boring and irrelevant. I have personally used ideas from the book as motivational vehicles for starting a lesson in my mathematics classes. The questions stimulate conversation and serve as a starting point for insightful discussions, making mathematics come alive."

De Pillis came to UC Riverside in 1965, drawn to the university by its small size and the possibility of individual contact with students and colleagues. "This is the book I was looking for since my graduate student days in Berkeley," he said. "That is, some book that would take an over-arching view of thought, its anatomy, its pitfalls and its triumphs. For example, how refreshing it would be for someone to show, in understandable language, how the strict logic of mathematics, which in the public's mind is cold and sterile, gives us imagination-challenging, mind-boggling surprises."

The book took de Pillis three years to write although it took "decades in the thinking." Influenced by writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bertrand Russell, Martin Gardner and Timothy Ferris, de Pillis is at work now on a handbook for mathematics teachers that focuses on the mathematical process and not just the facts or results of that process (theorems, corollaries, etc.)

Author bio: After training as a commercial artist, John de Pillis earned a Mechanical Engineering degree from Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. His interests in engineering led him to seek a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley. His research in mathematics and sabbaticals have led him to Italy, England, Norway, and Germany. He spent two years in Padua, Italy, as director of the University of California student exchange program. He is currently a private pilot and illustrator in Riverside, Calif., where he teaches at the University of California.

The UC Riverside Department of Mathematics has two dozen faculty members whose research covers a broad range of specialties, including algebra, analysis, geometry, topology, mathematical physics and combinatorics. Degrees offered include Master of Arts, Master of Science, and Doctor of Philosophy. Over 100 doctorates have been awarded in the 39 years since the graduate program began.
Book Cover.  To order

Book Cover. To order "777 Mathematical Conversation Starters," contact MAA Service Center, PO Box 91112, Washington, DC 20090-1112. Tel.: 800-331-1622. Fax: 301-206-9789.

John de Pillis, author of

John de Pillis, author of "777 Mathematical Conversation Starters." Photo credit: Lisette de Pillis

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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