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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 10/21/2009

A real "human calculator"

By Valerie Strauss

Meet Scott Flansburg, human calculator. He can accurately add, subtract, multiply, divide, and do square and cube roots, at dizzying speed. He is, in fact, faster than some calculators (which he proved in a demonstration to The Answer Sheet).

Flansburg said he believes people struggle with math because they are taught very early how to count incorrectly--and he believes he has devised a way to help that revolves around the number 9.

Following is part of a conversation The Sheet had with Flansburg, who is touring the country to promote the online 2009 American Math Challenge, which will be held next month, as well as World Math Day next March.

The challenge--which he announced on 9/9/09, is for students ages 9-14 to compete online in real-time 60-second math games. He is making a stop in the Washington area in early November, including a stop at Sidwell Friends School, where President’s Obama’s daughters attend.

Flansburg is the author of “Math Magic” and “Math Magic for Kids”, was listed in the 2001 Guinness Book of World Records for his math skills, and travels the world trying to persuade kids that math is fun. He has been on numerous television shows, including Oprah Winfrey’s, amazing audiences with his math skills.

Q) Did you come out of the womb being great at math?
A) It sort of came naturally to me as soon as I started learning numbers. I had one of those moments in math class where it was a do or die moment, where you become a fan of math the rest of your life or you decide that you are going to hate math the rest of your life and avoid it at all costs.

Q) What grade and what happened?
A) Fourth grade. I was 9 years old, going to school in upstate New York. It was a bizarre moment where the teacher had shown us how to do ... add up a column of numbers, carrying over from one column to the next. I was not listening. She picked me to go up to the board to do the answer in front of my classmates. If I had gotten that wrong I would have been scarred for life. But I did it backwards from the way she had taught us. And from that moment I questioned the way we learn and teach math. I believe we are teaching math backwards.

Q) Backwards?
A) We were taught to add from left to right. I added from right to left.

Q) My kids were taught how to do that too. It didn’t turn them into math geniuses.
A) I think I have found a pattern that literally turns on the human calculator in the brain.

Q) What is it?
A) First let me explain that we are off by 1. The human mind has been trained to look at numbers in a certain way that perpetuates a misunderstanding of numbers. I think there is a chapter missing in every math book on the planet. I refer to it as Chapter Zero. I believe this chapter will revolutionize the way people are introduced to numbers and how they feel and think about numbers.

Q) Explain.
A) Look at the numbers on your keyboard. They are 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,0. .... But numbers don’t work that way. Numbers are zero,1,2, 3,4,5,6,7,8,9.

What I’m trying to do is show the world that zero counts. Zero is the first number. If humans would learn how to count from zero, it would turn on the human calculator in their brain because if you turn on a calculator, it always starts at zero... If you turn on a calculator and it started at 1, two plus two ain’t 4. Only zero allows the calculator to work.

Q) So....
A) So numbers line up in a whole new way.... When your brain is taught that way, it literally gives your brain the proper prescription and lens to see the world of numbers in a clearer way. Can I share with you the secret to numbers?

Q) Please do.
A) Take a moment to actually physically experience the number 10.

Q) A moment of silence as I try to experience the number 10.)
A) If you did it properly, you put down a 1 and then a zero. Ten. Now add up the digits in that number.

Q) The answer is 1.
A) Now subtract that from the original number, 10. What do you get? Nine. Every number does that.

Q) Every number does that?
A) Take 53. Add the digits.

Q) 5 and 3 is 8.
A) Subtract 8 from 53.

Q) You get 45.
A) The 4 and 5 add up to 9 .....Take 11. One plus one is 2. Subtract the 2 from 11 and you get 9. ... Take 22. Add 2 and 2 and you get 4. Subtract 4 from 22 and you get 18. Add up the 1 and 8 and you get 9 .... Take 124. Add up 1, 2 and 4 and you get 7. Subtract 7 from 124 and you get 117. Add up 1 and 1 and 7 and you get 9.
It blows my mind every day. That works for every number to infinity.

Q) That is amazing. Really, really cool. So where do you take this? How is it going to help me be better at math, because right now, I’m pretty lousy with numbers.

A) ...We are teaching our kids to memorize a certain set of answers. You have to remember all those answers. And if you get them right you can move on. If you don’t, you are in trouble throughout your math career. It’s not really a test of understanding basic math. It is remembering a bunch of crap you have to regurgitate.

What I am sharing with you is a pattern which works for every number and will train your brain to see how numbers work together.... If everyone learned numbers this way, they would understand the basic language of numbers. Once you understand the basic language, you can start to learn the rest of it...

And kids can use this as a checker. Let’s say you want to add 8 plus 8 and you think it is 16. You can check. Put 8 and 8 together and you get 88. Subtract the number you think is the answer, 16 from 88. You get 72. Seven and 2 is 9. You know you are right. If it doesn’t add up to 9, you know you are wrong.

Q) I think the pattern is amazing. Really, amazing, though it seems to me you would have had to already memorized the answer to 8 plus 8 to get the answer to check... But what do I know?....So you travel around the world explaining this to people?

A) My goal as the ambassador for World Math Day and the American Math Challenge is to reach every student around 9 years old and tell them that the coolest number is 9. ... Do you want to hear something amazing?

Q) Sure. What is it?
A) I noticed the pattern on 9/9/99.

Q) No you did not.
A) .... I was playing golf with my friend Alice Cooper, you know, the rock star. We were on the 18th hole. And 1 plus 8 is 9.....

Q) .... How does it feel when you are doing a math problem?
A) My brain feels like there is a frequency for that. It feels like I can hear that channel loud and clear. My brain is going so fast that the hardest part is trying to synchronize my mouth.

Q) Add 57 and 57 and keep adding 57 to each total.
A) 57, 114, 161,218,275 [and he goes on without a break until he reaches four digits]

Q) So you really are the human calculator.
A) Literally.

Do you think this pattern of Flansburg's would help kids better understand math?

By Valerie Strauss  | October 21, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Learning  | Tags:  The Human Calculator, math  
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Truly fascinating, although in the interest of clarity, the sum of the digits of the difference is not always "9", but does appear to always be a multiple of 9, or in other words a number, whose digits when added does equal 9. Take the number 200. 2+0+0=2, 200-2=198, 1+9+8=18, not 9 but indeed a multiple of 9 and as with all multiples of 9, the sum of its digits add up to 9 (1+8).

Posted by: aboy | October 21, 2009 10:55 AM | Report abuse

Will this help kids better understand math? Maybe. Numbers are my job but since my brain was wired decades ago, this stuff doesn't fit at all. I had to read this post three times to understand his rule about nines and I still don't know what he was saying about zero. Has this method met with any success?

Posted by: KS100H | October 21, 2009 1:23 PM | Report abuse

Not only is his "amazing discovery" well-known, but it is something sophomores (and some freshmen) prove in class. (Actually, for any two-digits number ab, we have ab - (a+b) = 9a, always. He misses that). He is a calculation-savant, not someone who knows mathematics.

Most people like that really don't know how to communicate well what they do (See Ted Williams, hitting coach). Nice namedrop on Alice Cooper. Classy.....not.

Posted by: mathdr91 | October 22, 2009 3:41 PM | Report abuse

I tend to agree with mathdr91. Instead of being extraordinary, the result about 9's follows directly from our choice of the decimal system. Consider 12345-(1+2+3+4+5). This equals 10000+2000+300+40+5-(1+2+3+4+5). Reorganizing this gives 10000-1 + 2000-2 + 300-3 + 40-4 + 5-5 which is 9999 + 2(999) + 3(99) + 4(9) + 0 -- clearly a multiple of 9. While this result may be interesting on some level, I fail to see how this insight will help students do better arithmetic.

Posted by: jnm01 | October 25, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

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