The Rabbit Problem: For Current & Future Lovers of Math

As I recover from releasing Amelia Elkins Elkins (my modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion), Mr. AMB has graciously provided a review of The Rabbit Problem, a fascinating picture book that is perhaps better suited for adults than for children. While everyone in our household enjoys the book, Mr. AMB is its biggest fan.

UPDATE (9/9/15): From The Rabbit Problem, our daughters learned how fast rabbits multiply. What they don’t fully grasp yet is the impact of rabbits on the ecosystem, particularly when they aren’t a native species. New research shows “that rabbits’ vegetation-munching ways aren’t the only way these mammals alter ecosystems. Even 20 years after the bunny menace was eradicated from one island, differences persist in communities of soil fungi… Helping an ecosystem recover from such a change may be trickier than previously thought.”

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From Mr. AMB: The Rabbit Problem

The Rabbit ProblemI love math. These days, I don’t formally use it much beyond simple arithmetic, but, as Bertrand Russell wrote, “What is best in mathematics deserves not merely to be learnt as a task, but to be assimilated as a part of daily thought, and brought again and again before the mind with ever-renewed encouragement.”*

However, mathematics is often taught to children and adolescents as a feat of memorization and a collection of “tasks” with minimal emphasis on its practical application. In everyday life, for example, it doesn’t matter that someone has “better odds” with 10 lottery tickets than they do with 2, because the “odds” of both are miniscule.**

How do we teach that side of math to children?

And how do we show them the beauty of mathematics? Like mathematician Paul Erdős said, “Why are numbers beautiful? It’s like asking why is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony beautiful. If you don’t see why, someone can’t tell you. I know numbers are beautiful. If they aren’t beautiful, nothing is.”

Enter The Rabbit Problem by Emily Gravett, a gorgeous, intriguing picture book that begins with a simple question about two baby rabbits left in a field. She asks,

How many pairs will there be:

a) At the end of each month?

b) After one year?

The answers, of course, are 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, and 144 — the famed Fibonacci sequence. Each number is the sum of the two numbers before it.

Why is it important?

First, the Fibonacci sequence seems to have a special place in growth patterns in the natural world, from animal reproduction to the spiral shapes seen in snail-shells, flowers, and pinecones. Second, the Fibonacci sequence sits in the gray area between “linear” growth and “exponential” growth, a concept that people often have trouble truly understanding.

There’s no real narrative in Gravett’s book — other than watching the rabbit population grow each month. However, the book brings the Fibonacci sequence alive with vivid illustrations in a calendar format, with each month including various detailed diversions, like a rabbit newspaper (“The Fibber”) in July and “The Carrot Cookbook” in the middle of September.

I don’t think my 7-year-olds quite understand the math that underlies the book, but that’s the point of having it and returning to it every now and then: someday, they will get it.

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* For adults looking to improve their use of mathematical concepts in “daily thought,” I recommend Jordan Ellenberg’s “How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking,” which begins with that same quote from Russell.

**Researchers have found that America’s poorest households purchase the majority of lottery tickets, making the lottery, according to a recent article on Wonkblog, “an almost 12-figure tax on the desperation of the least fortunate” (albeit a “voluntary” tax).

12 thoughts on “The Rabbit Problem: For Current & Future Lovers of Math

  1. I have always struggled with math. But recently, I took a class called Math for Liberal Arts. I know… it sounds hilarious. Logical fallacies would be something of interest for you, since I read you’re a former lawyer. If you don’t know what they are, I encourage you to google them.

    1. Math for Liberal Arts sounds like a fun class! I’m curious to know how it differed from typical math classes. Did the class cover logical fallacies? Math was never my favorite subject, but I love logic games (I am actually still a practicing lawyer).

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I hated algebra when I was in high school. But I had reason to relearn it as an adult some years later, and I loved it. I thought it was elegant and beautiful and I didn’t want to stop doing equations. 🙂

    I did get over it, though. 😉

    1. I had a similar experience with math. I started doing math sets when I was in law school as a stress relieving technique. I learned to like it more as an adult than I did as a kid.

      I hope you’re having a nice weekend!

  3. SF

    The diversions sound intriguing. Math was never my subject, but that’s probably cause I grew up in a time when women were taught they “couldn’t” do it. It was largely unspoken but generally accepted. It’s good you & Mr. A.M.B. are teaching your daughters otherwise.

    1. Thank you! One of my daughters tells us she has “math in her brain.” She sees the world as numbers/measurements/equations. I’ve never been that way. I’m not “bad” at math, but I’m not particularly “good” at it either.

  4. My downstairs neighbor is poor, eligible for medicaid, food stamps, and Section 8. I just spent several hours entering all of her lottery tickets into the second chance pool. She has promised to split any earnings with me.

    The Fibonacci numbers are beautiful in part because there is so much nature in them. In spite of ending up a lawyer, I was meant to be a mathematician. Now, my artistry is turned to words in stories and poetry, but I sometimes wish I had stayed a mathematician and an artist in mumbers.

    1. It seems like most people enter the legal profession as a last resort. I really like my public interest legal career, but I probably should’ve been a social worker. My husband should’ve been a mathematician (or something along those lines), but he’s also a lawyer.

      Thanks for the comment! I hope your neighbor beats the odds.

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