July 25, 2021

UM professor’s calculated risk adds up to literary success

Most people, of a certain age, remember their first backyard excavation. They probably also remember being told by their mothers that if they kept on digging, they’d wind up in China. That is what Jerry Farlow’s mother told him, so that’s what he told his friend, Bugs Maxwell.

However, Bugs, being a skeptic, didn’t believe him. She got out an atlas to determine the point exactly opposite the earth from which they were digging. Farlow, now a professor of mathematics at the University of Maine, relays Bugs’ finding in his latest book, “The Girl Who Ate Equations for Breakfast.”

“If you check your world atlas, you will discover that no matter where you start digging in the [continental] United States, you won’t hit China. In fact, you won’t even come close,” he writes. “You will arrive somewhere in the Indian Ocean — a couple of thousand miles west of Australia. … The only mothers who can honestly tell their kids they will end up in China are some mothers from Argentina and Chile.”

This is just one of the more than 20 problems and puzzles the 60-year-old mathematician presents in his second book. His other book, “It’s a Math, Math, Math, Math World,” is full of more essays that incorporate mathematical puzzlers into the text.

“The Girl Who Ate Equations for Breakfast” features the character Bugs, the girl math genius, who appears in most of the chapters. She helps weave the essays together into a whole and, the author hopes, acts as a role model for young women fascinated by numbers.

“It might be said that every small town has a Bugs Maxwell,” Farlow writes when he introduces her to readers. “The fathers in our town said she was a bad influence on us boys and called her trouble. The mothers called her other names. I called her every night. For you see, Bugs had a bad reputation — she was a mathematical genius. If there was one thing back in the ’50s that was worse than a girl being born with two heads, it was being born `good in mathematics.”‘

Farlow also writes textbooks with titles like “Ordinary Differential Equations,” “Finite Math and Its Applications” and “Self-Organizing Methods in Modeling.” A teacher of college mathematics for 30 years, Farlow began writing about 25 years ago.

“I would read a writer and then emulate that style,” he says, explaining how he “stumbled upon” his own writing style. “I began reading the work of humorist S.J. Perelman shortly after he died. I must have written about 50 Perelmanesque stories before finally deciding to merge mathematics and writing.”

He published several of his stories and essays in math education publications. Then, five years ago, he decided to gather his writings into the two volumes and offer them to publishers. He found no takers.

“Publishers told me they liked my books, but they weren’t sure how to classify or market them,” he says. “They don’t know if they’re math books or humor books, if they’re for teen-agers or adults, teachers or students.”

Last year, Farlow decided to publish the books himself and created Aardvark Press. He picked the name knowing it would put him at the top of publishers’ alphabetical listings. He has sold out of his first run of 100 copies each and is reprinting 1,000 copies of each title.

While the combination of writing and mathematics might seem incongruent to some number nerds, Farlow argues that poetry and mathematics are bound together. In his most serious essay, “The Poetry of Mathematics,” the author writes that “neither mathematics nor poetry has a boundary that marks an end to its domain. The only boundaries of each discipline lie in the imaginations of its practitioners.”

“Math to me, when written on a page, has some beauty,” he says. “It has certain symmetries that are beautiful in a way. … Humor and math both take a great deal of precision. … I love to rewrite, to play with words. In a way, it is like playing with numbers.”

Farlow does most of his writing on weekends, but likes to read poetry on Friday evenings to unwind. Besides Perelman, his favorite humor writers are Patrick McManus and Kent Ward.

In one of his essays, Farlow compares himself with the University of Maine’s most famous graduate.

“I have been called by some the Stephen King of Algebra. I think it’s safe to say that students experience more terror on the first page of one of my beginning algebra texts than in an entire Stephen King novel. At least that’s what I’ve been told.”

However, there is little terror in his two volumes of essays. There are, however, head-scratching puzzlers and poetry about magic, religion, Ogden Nash, the World Series, Monty Hall, clocks, planets, calendars and pie — of the mathematical and the apple varieties — as well as the answer to that nagging question, “Just What is New York City Really Worth?”

If only math had been this fascinating and funny in school, a lot more people would know that when they say “You can’t get there from here,” they are really talking about China.

Farlow will appear at 7 tonight at Borders in Bangor.

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