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Where do ideas come from? That’s a big question. Here’s a smaller one: Where do mathematical ideas come from? I’ve wondered about this from the time I first contemplated being a mathematician until long after I officially became one. My earliest memory of anything like a mathematical idea comes from a childhood walk with my dad. We left the house and made our way toward downtown Metuchen, the tiny town in central Jersey where I grew up, to a little luncheonette called the Corner Confectionery.

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Ten or so years later, when I was a college freshman, I would learn that I had stumbled upon an instance of what is called an abundant number, a phenomenon first studied by the ancient Greeks. An abundant number is smaller than the sum of its divisors: in my case, the sum of one, two, three, ...

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I can still picture it: the rack of newspapers, magazines, and comic books; the ice-cream treats in the back corner; the long counter with stools, where I used to sit and spin until I was told to stop. It was about a mile-long walk, reserved for special occasions. On that bright fall morning, we...

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Where do ideas come from? That’s a big question. Here’s a smaller one: Where do mathematical ideas come from? I’ve wondered about this from the time I first contemplated being a mathematician until long after I officially became one.

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My dad, a mathematical physicist, a man with an active mind, but one of few words, was a gentle guide, letting me think through things on my own. We took our time walking, and we also took our time thinking and talking about the basic properties of numbers. In my head, it was easy to cut the pie ...

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This leisurely walk through the neighborhood soon led me to the exciting idea that twelve was a great number. Twelve could be divided by one, two, three, four, and six. That’s a lot of numbers! If I had a pie cut into twelve pieces, it would be easy to divvy up dessert for many different-sized gr...

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My earliest memory of anything like a mathematical idea comes from a childhood walk with my dad. We left the house and made our way toward downtown Metuchen, the tiny town in central Jersey where I grew up, to a little luncheonette called the Corner Confectionery. I can still picture it: the ...

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This leisurely walk through the neighborhood soon led me to the exciting idea that twelve was a great number. Twelve could be divided by one, two, three, four, and six. That's a lot of numbers! If I had a pie cut into twelve pieces, it would be easy to divvy up dessert for many different-size...

11

Mathematical objects are big ideas about algebra, geometry, and logic, about the properties and definitions of numbers. It's not at all obvious how to go about thinking up some new twist on these things-the transformation from test-taker to theorem poser and then theorem prover is difficult t...

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On that bright fall morning, we strolled up Spring Street—a beautiful street lined with huge oak trees—and talked about fractions, though I wouldn’t have known to call them that. We were puzzling over—or, rather, I was puzzling over—how to fairly divide a pie (probably one of the Corner Confe...

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We took our time walking, and we also took our time thinking and talking about the basic properties of numbers. In my head, it was easy to cut the pie in half, and then in half again, and again: two, four, or eight pieces. But, somewhere near Main Street, I got stuck on how to reliably create...

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### A Big Question

Where do ideas come from? That’s a big question. Here’s a smaller one: Where do mathematical ideas come from? I’ve wondered about this from the time I first contemplated being a mathematician until long after I officially became one.

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As odd as it might sound, I've never been particularly confident of my mathematical abilities. I don't mean the arithmetic part, the part that people usually associate with being a mathematician. ("Hey, let Dan calculate the tip! Ha ha!") It's true that I'm probably better than average at men...

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