Interview with Derrick Niederman, author of Number Freak

In this interview we sit down with author and mathematician Derrick Niederman to discuss his engaging, recently published book about the first two hundred natural numbers, ‘Number Freak: From 1 to 200, The Hidden Language of Numbers Revealed’.

1. Some of our readers are likely familiar with your work, but could you tell us more about yourself and your mathematical background?

I majored in mathematics as an undergraduate at Yale, from which I graduated in 1976. I think I even won a couple of math prizes, but I have to confess that I wasn’t the top mathematician in my class. That distinction would surely have gone to Jonathan Rogawski, who last I knew was a professor of mathematics at UCLA. (Notice that I just created the impression that I was the second-best mathematician in my class. I don’t know whether that’s true, but I’ll take it.)

Anyway, I went on to get a Ph.D. in mathematics at M.I.T. and have remained in the Boston area ever since. I went into the investment business in the early 1980s, based on the assumption that quantitative expertise would be a good match. But the truth is that I got progressively more qualitative as time went by, going from securities analyst to investment writer. I don’t know whether that transition made complete sense, but it ultimately gave me the opportunity to write some books – first about investments and then about numbers, including several volumes of puzzle books.

2. What inspired you to write Number Freak?

I was asked by a publisher to come up with a concept that would do for mathematics what a slightly different concept did for the natural sciences. The idea I came up with was more of a coffee-table book than the sized-down version I now have in my hands, but that effort was considered too expensive. I subsequently cast a wider net for the project, and was fortunate enough to attract publishers in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia.

3. The book is chock-full of interesting facts about the first 200 natural numbers. What did you learn in the process of writing this book that you didn’t know before?

Well, I guess the pat answer is that I learned how little I actually knew. Some of the work on planar tilings was new to me, even though it probably shouldn’t have been – for example, the Archimedean and Laves tilings I discuss in #11 are quite beautiful but I hadn’t been aware of their categorization and duality. And I wasn’t familiar with the work of mathematicians such as Erich Friedman of Stetson University, somebody who surely could have pulled off a book like this: I was only too happy, for example, to include “Friedman numbers” such as 127.

In self-defense, I wasn’t a complete neophyte. One big advantage I had in writing the book – apart from doing it in the Internet age, which gave me an abundance of material – was that I have a good memory for mathematical and pop culture trivia. For example, I enjoyed reaching back and remembering that the ultra-high security “D” block at Alcatraz prison had precisely 42 individual cells, something that meshed quite nicely with the picture of the “magic cube” I displayed elsewhere in the discussion of #42.

4. Having read this book I feel that it’s accessible to virtually anyone. Who do you feel is the ideal target audience for the book?

Boy is that a good question. My answer is that it’s for absolutely anyone, but if that’s too mealy-mouthed a reply, I guess I would say that I’d be especially pleased if parents bought Number Freak to (successfully!) introduce their kids to the world of numbers in a way that maybe, just maybe, is friendlier than what those kids were getting elsewhere.

5. Was there anything that you wish you could have included in the book but didn’t?

Another good question, and I’m afraid a painful one. The book was originally slated to go from 1 to 300 — as in a perfect game in bowling, among other things — but the editorial powers-that-be eventually whittled that down to 200. Too bad, as my discussion of the infamous 256th level of Pac-Man was worth the price of admission. (Say, that’s a topic I didn’t know about when I started the book!) I also lost some precious photos, charts and diagrams along the way. And you can imagine how I felt when a friend berated me for not mentioning “77 Sunset Strip,” when of course my original manuscript mentioned the show – and I have a photograph of Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. to prove it! (Those of my vintage – I’m 54 – will remember the show’s catchy theme song, but not many are aware that 77 was a particular good choice for the street address because it is the smallest integer whose English pronunciation requires five syllables.)
Other than that, I deliberately went easy on the cult surrounding the number 23, for example, and left a bunch of numerology and religious interpretations for somebody else to ponder. That’s another book all by itself.

6. What’s the answer to life, the universe and everything? 🙂

Why it’s 42, of course. You know, I had already answered question #3 above before I saw this one!

7. What’s your favorite number and why?

When I started the book, 17 had the edge. First of all, “At 17” by Janis Ian is probably my favorite song of all time. It came out in 1975, which was my favorite music year of all time. (Perhaps I should have written it in 1975.) But 17 is famous in mathematics for Carl Friedrich Gauss’s famous straightedge-and-compass construction of a regular 17-gon, for the 17 “wallpaper” symmetries of the plane, and for the fact that if you connect 17 suitably spaced dots with a segment of red, blue, or green, you will automatically create a “monochromatic” triangle whose three vertices are among the original 17 dots. And nobody has yet created a solvable Sudoku puzzle with fewer than 17 original entries. How about that?

But by the time I finished Number Freak, my favorite number had become 36. What happened is that while doing research for the book I came across a conjecture from the 18th century called the 36 Officer Problem. I had never heard of it before (yet another example!), perhaps because the problem was resolved in the early 20th century and then ceased to be of interest. But there was a three-dimensional wrinkle to the problem that hadn’t been explored, and I used that wrinkle to design a puzzle with a gray base and 36 towers of various colors. I went to Toy Fair and showed the puzzle to ThinkFun, a great game and puzzle company out of Alexandria, Virginia. And guess what? They made me a deal for the puzzle and after a year tinkering with the basic model, they launched it as “36 Cube” in the fall of 2008—many months before Number Freak came out! I was thrilled that the lessons of the book came to life in such a tangible way, so I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that 36 holds a very special place in my heart.

Thank you very much, Derrick, for your insightful answers. And to our readers, if you haven’t already done so, check out his book.

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4 Comments

  1. Frasier October 13, 2009
  2. paul riefberg October 15, 2009
    • Dennis Gittinger January 19, 2012
  3. vadim December 7, 2009

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