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Playing at Math

By Caitlin Jennings, Communications Coordinator, Society for Science & the Public

Paul Bamberg (Science Talent Search 1959) says “I’m not a mathematician; I play at being a mathematician.” He currently teaches math at Harvard University, though he says, “They know that I’ve never taken a graduate level course in math in my life, but I’m a quick study and a good teacher so they just turned me loose to create interesting courses, which I’ve been doing very happily for the last ten years.”

Paul’s enthusiasm for playing at math started in high school. He transferred to a new school his senior year where he was encouraged to enter the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, now the Intel Science Talent Search, but the deadline was approaching and he didn’t have a project. Then he thought, “Well, I have spent most of my time playing a spinner baseball game called All-Star Baseball and I’ve kept lots of statistics so maybe I can turn that into a project.” He read up on statistics and put a project together that could predict future scores. “Nobody took it seriously,” he says; both his parents and teachers didn’t think much of the project. “They said you’re wasting your time on this game, Paul.”

Fortunately, they were wrong and he traveled to Washington, D.C. to compete and meet the other 39 finalists. “I had never met anyone who was my style as a scientist,” he says. “I was just accustomed to going to schools where I was the outlier, so it was a real eye-opening experience and very valuable for me.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a PhD at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, he taught in the Harvard physics department for a number of years. In the ‘80s and early ‘90s he split his time between teaching and working in the corporate world, and in 1995, he retired from teaching to focus on Dragon Systems, a voice recognition software company. At the time, there were no academic programs in voice recognition, so he hired people with math and physics backgrounds who could learn to write the new programming on the job. This is why he advises his students, “20 years from now, when someone is looking to hire people in a new field that isn’t taught in any university yet, they’ll go and hire people with degrees in math and physics.”

In 2000, Paul decided to come back to teaching, only this time to the math department. “I just love to teach and I’m always willing to sign myself up for another course.” He teaches five classes, more than most other professors, and his students’ majors range from the hard sciences to the humanities.

“This is my outlet for creativity,” he says. According to a recent article in the Harvard Crimson, Paul once dressed as Mr. Rogers for a class on open sets and neighborhoods. He also started proof parties, get-togethers where students present proofs to each other, which have become popular on campus. “I enjoy interacting with the students,” he says. “I figure when most of the people you pal around with are 19, it keeps you young.”