Wendy Lichtman's Math Mysteries 

Equations are fun in Berkeley author's mystery novels.

Remember middle school? Remember how, back then, everything — from friendships to crushes to your favorite songs and foods — seemed fickle and fleeting and amorphous? That's why, in Wendy Lichtman's Do the Math mystery novels for young readers, thirteen-year-old Tess loves math. Its equations allow little or no room for interpretation. Its solutions are as unemotional as they are ineluctable. Algebra, with its "let x equal" variables, presents a slight problem in this regard, but Tess is learning the ropes in Do the Math: Secrets, Lies, and Algebra, as she investigates what may or may not have been a murder. "We're spending a lot of time studying inequalities in Algebra now," Tess tells us, "which makes sense, since who you're greater than (>), and who you're less than is kind of the point of eighth grade." Thus a good-looking popular boy — who rates near ten on a one-to-ten coolness scale — is ostensibly "greater than" our narrator, who with her bad haircut and unspecial clothes rates somewhere between six and eight, despite being a math whiz. But when she learns that he's cheating on a test, does she become "greater than" he?

The fact that Berkeley-based Lichtman — who will be at the Lawrence Hall of Science (Centennial Drive, Berkeley) on April 11 — has a math degree surprises even those who know her well: "The first time I ever played that parlor game where you're supposed to tell three facts about yourself, one of which is a lie, I knew I'd win." Because she is a professional writer — for The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, and other publications — and because "I don't figure out the tip at a restaurant any more quickly than the English majors," most people would never guess what she spent so many years studying. "It's surprising how rarely the topic of differential equations comes up, even among the closest of friends."

She was inspired to start writing young adult novels after encountering the ideas of Robert Parris Moses, winner of a MacArthur "genius" grant and author of Radical Equations, "a book about math and social change that had blown my mind." Having founded the Algebra Project to improve math education among minorities, Moses asserts that math literacy is a major gateway to success. "One idea, especially, got to me," Lichtman remembers. "Dr. Moses argued that algebra was developmentally appropriate for all eighth graders, not just the strongest students, because when the concept of the unknown — for example, the letter x — enters the picture, it changes everything; it changes the way you can process information, mathematically and metaphorically. There's my story, I thought. That's exactly how I'd felt in eighth grade — as if the unknown x had been placed in my life and it had changed everything. I began to understand then that in math — and in life — some questions had more than one correct answer, and other questions, like why my mother had decided not to report a possible murder, couldn't be answered at all." 1 p.m., free with museum admission. LawrenceHallofScience.org

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