One interesting thing about this story is the reason that Siobhan Roberts was in Atlanta to start with: G4G7, the seventh gathering of mathematicians in honour of Martin Gardner. (Get it?--Gathering 4 Gardner, number 7.) It's "all about invoking Gardner's abiding love for the play and fun in math." In other words, if you're a Lewis Carroll type of person, this is your place. It's a "four-day curiosity cabinet of....brainteasers." But there's a catch: you have to be invited. You have to be smart. And you have to be a mathematician.
That doesn't mean you have to be old. One of the invitees was Robert Barrington Leigh, a 19-year-old math student at the University of Toronto. This is a guy who's won a lot of math contests and is majoring in math...but think about this:
"[Barrington Leigh's mentor, Professor Andy Liu of the University of Alberta in Edmonton] said that Barrington Leigh was able to maintain his mathematical curiosity through his first two years at university....[but] his university syllabus of mathematical study doesn't allow him time [now] to do playful math. And finding himself [at the conference] among those who do have the time to indulge makes him a bit apprehensive, at first. 'I used to be more [into playful math] when I was younger,' said Barrington Leigh. 'It helps keep you sharp. But right now my work is more about remembering than being creative.' [Liu] noted that therein lies the value of G4G7, and the weakness in typical mathematics education. 'The worst thing the education system does is take away students' natural curiosity,' said Liu...."Wow--even for math majors who get invited to G4G7.
Couldn't they just give somebody like that a degree and then let him go off and do "big math?"
And if that's the case for our best math students, how much more should we be concerned for those who aren't as highly motivated in math to begin with?
P.S. Oh yes--the other neat thing (if you didn't read the article) was this:
Gardner, now 91, lives in Norman, Okla. He did not attend his namesake conference; he has never liked travel (he spent the weekend at home, writing his umpteenth book, this one on the works of the "prince of paradox," G.K. Chesterton).