For parents of a young scientist: math

It is not uncommon for parents to ask my advice or help with their child; someone they consider to be a young scientist, or at least a potential young scientist. My main advice is math.

Most often the tyke is 5 to 8 years old and has an interest in weather, chemistry, or how things work. That’s a good age, about the age that the science bug struck me, and it’s a good age to begin to introduce the power of math. Math isn’t the total answer, by the way; if your child is interested in weather, for example, you’ll need to get books on weather, and you’ll want to buy a weather-science kit at your local smart-toy store (look for one with a small wet-bulb and dry bulb thermometer setup so that you’ll be able to discuss humidity  in some modest way: wet bulb temperatures are lower than dry bulb with a difference that is higher the lower the humidity; it’s zero at 100%). But math makes the key difference between the interest blooming into science or having it wilt or worse. Math is the language of science, and without it there is no way that your child will understand the better books, no way that he or she will be able to talk to others who are interested, and the interest can bloom into a phobia (that’s what happens when your child has something to express, but can’t speak about it in any real way).

Math takes science out of the range of religion and mythology, too. If you’re stuck to the use of words, you think that the explanations in science books resemble the stories of the Greek gods. You either accept them or you don’t. With math you see that they are testable, and that the  versions in the book are generally simplified approximations to some more complex description. You also get to see that there the descriptions are testable, and that are many, different looking descriptions that will fit the same phenomena. Some will be mathematically identical, and others will be quite different, but all are testable as the Greek myths are not.

What math to teach depends on your child’s level and interests. If the child is young, have him or her count in twos or fives, or tens, etc. Have him or her learn to spot patterns, like that the every other number that is divisible by 5 ends in zero, or that the sum of digits for every number that’s divisible by three is itself divisible by three. If the child is a little older, show him or her geometry, or prime numbers, or squares and cubes. Ask your child to figure out the sum of all the numbers from 1 to 100, or to estimate the square-root of some numbers. Ask why the area of a circle is πr2 while the circumference is 2πr: why do both contain the same, odd factor, π = 3.1415926535… All these games and ideas will give your child a language to use discussing science.

If your child is old enough to read, I’d definitely suggest you buy a few books with nice pictures and practical examples. I’d grown up with the Giant Golden book of Mathematics by Irving Adler, but I’ve seen and been impressed with several other nice books, and with the entire Golden Book series. Make regular trips to the library, and point your child to an appropriate section, but don’t force the child to take science books. Forcing your child will kill any natural interest he or she has. Besides, having other interests is a sign of normality; even the biggest scientist will sometimes want to read something else (sports, music, art, etc.) Many scientists drew (da Vinci, Feynman) or played the violin (Einstein). Let your child grow at his or her own pace and direction. (I liked the theater, including opera, and liked philosophy).

Now, back to the science kits and toys. Get a few basic ones, and let your child play: these are toys, not work. I liked chemistry, and a chemistry set was perhaps the best toy I ever got. Another set I liked was an Erector set (Gilbert). Get good sets that they pick out, but don’t be disappointed if they don’t do all the experiments, or any of them. They may not be interested in this group; just move on. I was not interested in microscopy, fish, or animals, for example. And don’t be bothered if interests change. It’s common to start out interested in dinosaurs and then to change to an interest in other things. Don’t push an old interest, or even an active new interest: enough parental pushing will kill any interest, and that’s sad. As Solomon the wise said, the fire is more often extinguished by too much fuel than by too little. But you do need to help with math, though; without that, no real progress will be possible.

Oh, one more thing, don’t be disappointed if your child isn’t interested in science; most kids aren’t interested in science as such, but rather in something science-like, like the internet, or economics, or games, or how things work. These areas are all great too, and there is a lot more room for your child to find a good job or a scholarship based on their expertise in theses areas. Any math he or she learns is certain to help with all of these pursuits, and with whatever other science-like direction he or she takes.   — Good luck. Robert Buxbaum (Economics isn’t science, not because of the lack of math, but because it’s not reproducible: you can’t re-run the great depression without FDR’s stimulus, or without WWII)

7 thoughts on “For parents of a young scientist: math

  1. Pingback: Yogurt making for kids | REB Research Blog

  2. Pingback: How Tesla invented, I think, Tesla coils and wireless chargers. | REB Research Blog

  3. Pingback: Toxic chemistry you can do at home | REB Research Blog

  4. Pingback: If hot air rises, why is it cold on mountain-tops? | REB Research Blog

  5. Pingback: Toxic electrochemistry and biology at home | REB Research Blog

  6. Pingback: Another Quantum Joke | REB Research Blog

  7. Ellen Dornan

    Terrific advice, especially about helping kids appreciate the beauty of math. I blew it off as a kid, and thought I could catch up with my math enough in college to pursue a career in the sciences. My graduate advisor steered me into education, saying that trying to do modern physics with the math I had was like “trying to learn economics from cave drawings.”


Leave a Reply