Math and More Math Magazine correspondent Sophia Logos has a rare in-person interview with Professor L. F. Bear. To reach Professor Bear, Ms. Logos had to trek through the basin of the Skeena River, in northwestern British Columbia, where Professor Bear was partaking of a salmon run. Here is the transcript of her interview.
Logos: I’m here in the Skeena River basin on a feldspar outcrop, relaxing with Professor Large Ferocious Bear, a literal giant in the math community.
Professor Bear: You flatter me, Ms. Logos. Have more salmon. This one was swimming only seconds ago.
Logos: Thank you—no—I’ve already eaten more raw salmon than I’ve ever—
Professor Bear: Ms. Logos—I’m dreadfully sorry, I forgot that many humans prefer to eat fish after it is heated in a fire. Were you eating it raw to humor me?
Logos: Oh no! This salmon is delicious. I’m simply full. How do you bears say it? I’m about ready to hibernate.
Professor Bear: Ha!
Logos: Let’s get started, shall we? The burning question I have to ask first is this. Professor Bear, what are your mathematical credentials?
Professor Bear: I just love math. I’ve always loved it.
Logos: But how did you learn it? Where did you study it? I mean, you’re a wild bear, you were born here, in the valley of a Skeena tributary, and, frankly, I’m not seeing any math here. Do any other animals do math with you?
Professor Bear: No.
Logos: Not even, a wolverine, let’s say? What about a mountain goat? I hear they’re excellent judges of angles and distance.
Professor Bear: No, no, not really. I’m the only animal around here that does analysis, probability theory, and differential geometry.
Logos: I’ve heard the rumors, Professor Bear. Do you know what rumors I’m talking about?
Professor Bear: I’d never assume to know your mind, Ms. Logos.
Logos: The alien rumors. That you’re not really a bear, and you’re not even—
Professor Bear: Oh come on. Where’d you get that from, the Internet? I’m a real bear—I was born here. My math teachers are the ones from outer space.
Logos: Professor Bear, you’re not alone in that sentiment.
Professor Bear: It’s not a sentiment, it’s a fact. I don’t like to talk about it because it’s easily misunderstood. People love to jump to conclusions about alien abduction and genetic experiments and so on. But I had a most enlightening experience, in my youth, with a pair of extra-terrestrial visitors. It’s as simple as that.
Logos: Tell me how it began.
Professor Bear: Well, I was what you call a teenager, a big cub not fully grown. And I was obsessed with fishing. I had just learned how, and I didn’t want to stop. These two rather odd bears approached me, in friendliness, and watched. There were plenty of salmon for them too. To my surprise, they didn’t move to catch any. Yet I could tell they were hungry—in fact, they were severely out of season. They looked as if they had just woken up from hibernating, which in fact they had. I finally got tired of being watched and I forgot my manners. “Take a salmon already!” I said.
Logos: Professor Bear, I know that salmon are important to you, but when did the math begin?
Professor Bear: You’re missing the point. I had no way to communicate with these bears. We had no common language, no reference points. It wasn’t until I plopped two salmon in front of them and grunted twice that some kind of understanding surfaced in their eyes. We began, you see, with numbers.
Professor Bear: Yes, we counted together. And then they led me inside their interstellar vehicle. It was huge and cavernous and highly optimized for bear-like species. They came from a planet located in the Ursa Major part of the sky, a planet called, and I doubt this is pure coincidence, Ursa Ursa. It was they who taught me advanced mathematics, with the aid of some very bear-friendly technology. In return, I showed them many beautiful things.
Logos: What did the alien bears like best?
Professor Bear: A stump I overturned for grubs. They took a lot of photos.
Logos: Professor Bear, with all due respect, your story is hard to believe. Why did they not make contact with humans?
Professor Bear: You can be sure I asked them. They said “Primates?” and shrugged. I think they just weren’t interested. They came to Earth to hang out with bears, they said. It made no sense to them to seek out humans. They followed some sort of visionary leader, Winnie, whose prime directive is: “Leave no trace. Then nap.”
Logos: But they did leave a trace. They gave you a math education.
Professor Bear: I don’t think they see it that way. Their word for “trace” is different from ours. They mean trace on a galactic scale, and we don’t really have words for that.
Logos: I regret to agree with you there. We barely go global—I don’t think we’re ever galactic.
Professor Bear: True, so true.
Logos: But so, afterwards. You’re a changed bear. Unlike the alien bears, you make contact with humans. Why?
Professor Bear: Surely that needs no explanation. Humans are the dominant species on Earth, something the bears from Ursa Ursa simply couldn’t understand despite the proof all around them. And you’re asking the wrong question. I don’t have much in common with the vast majority of humans. It’s imprecise to say I make contact with humans. I make contact with mathematicians.
Logos: And when did you start working with young mathematicians?
Professor Bear: Well, actually that happened first. After my sojourn with the extraterrestrial bears, I raised several cubs. Not all my cubs were interested in mathematics, but for those who were, and their friends, I held seminars. It was fun. And after that I yearned for contact with others who had come as far as I did. So I learned English, which was much easier than the Ursa Ursa language, and I spent considerable time just sniffing.
Logos: Are you implying …
Professor Bear: Indubitably. Mathematicians can be identified by smell. It’s actually a bear-level process of positive identification and deductive reasoning. Of course, there was a tendency for me to find mathematicians who like hiking in the woods. That’s how I found my exponent, Marjorie Sayer, and she encouraged me to work with her on the elementary school math club.
Logos: Professor Bear, our readers want to know your recommendations for math education. Are you in favor of higher standards? What about technology in the classroom?
Professor Bear: There is a disturbance in the wind. I think I’d better go.
Logos: Please, Professor Bear, we’d really like to know your thoughts! Between tiger moms, low test scores, and inequity in school districts, we’ve got some big problems to solve.
Professor Bear: Do I look like a bear with a successful track record in social engineering? Because that’s what you’re talking about.
Logos: Did you read Andrew Hacker’s NYT article, “Is Algebra Necessary?”
Professor Bear: Yes. I’ll clarify my position: find someone with a successful track record in improving schools and ask that bear these kinds of questions. I see no point arguing the merits or demerits of Dr. Hacker’s position here.
Logos: How about “A Mathematician’s Lament” by Paul Lockhart?
Professor Bear: Oh, yes. And I’m in great sympathy with Dr. Lockhart. He’s a math teacher, a good one, but I smell that he is not the kind of social visionary we need.
You’re kind of goading me here, Ms. Logos, so I’ll come out and tell you something I find troubling about both Hacker and Lockhart’s articles, and that is that they argue for a poet’s view of math, and even though I have that poet sensibility myself, I think that math can be many things to many individuals. What about the engineer’s sensibility? What about the multitudes who took their math certifications and used them to bring home prey for their families by becoming accountants?
I love the math club room. It’s a habitat for math and it’s so exciting to see the different approaches that different cubs bring to the subject. What seems so powerful in math is that when we agree on a solution, we really really agree. And so in the math habitat, I see both the flourishing of the individual, and strong social connections, unbreakable harmonies, the true meeting of minds.
It may sound self-serving, Ms. Logos, but I need this. I need this feeling. It is hope.
Cubs need it, too.
Logos: Thank you for the interview, Professor Bear. Nap well.
Professor Bear: Nap well.