Role Models in Science and Mathematics Series: Larry Baggett, the Blind Mathematician
Posted on May 27, 2019 by Ann
“I want to be exceptional,” 14-year old Tammy said about her goals in life.
“I don’t want to be a strawberry. I want to be a durian,” said 13-year old Gil, after he learnt the meaning of the phrase “strawberry generation”.
Tammy did not let the challenges she faces in communication and social interaction stop her from believing in herself. She plans to be a researcher in the future.
Gil hasn’t decided on his career path yet but he prefers the sciences and does not intend to let the challenges he faces in learning stop him from showing grit.
Role Models in Science and Mathematics
For children like Tammy and Gil, learning that there are famous individuals who had conquered their own disabilities and had blazed a trail in the scientific fields for others to follow can be a motivating experience. They should know that they can do what they might have been told can’t be done, and how others have done it.
This is why we have put together a series focusing on inspiring role models in science and mathematics. Today, we are putting our spotlight on Larry Baggett, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics.
Born in 1939, Baggett was blinded when he was just 5 years old, due to an accident with a kitchen knife. In his book, In the Dark on the Sunny Side: A Memoir of an Out-of-Sight Mathematician, Baggett recounted that he was neither a genius nor a savant. Instead, he was”a square peg struggling to get into and stay inside a round hole” and he was “mainstreamed in a school long before mainstreaming was at all common, or maybe even invented”. As a result, he became …
- the first blind person enrolled in the Orange County Public School System;
- the first blind person admitted to Davidson College;
- the first blind graduate student in mathematics at the University of Washington; and
- even the first blind person to march with the school band in various downtown parades in Orlando.
Line of angels
Baggett also acknowledged that his success was due to a long line of angels who helped in succeed in what he tried to do.
For example, he was able to take in-class tests because his teachers agreed to let him bring a portable typewriter to school. He was able to join the chess club because someone figured out how to make a special chess board for him and other club members agreed to use his chess set when they played against him. There were not many books in Braille so his mother and classmates read to him.
How do blind mathematicians work?
“A sighted mathematician generally works by sitting around scribbling on paper: According to one legend, the maid of a famous mathematician, when asked what her employer did all day, reported that he wrote on pieces of paper, crumpled them up, and threw them into the wastebasket. So how do blind mathematicians work? They cannot rely on back of-the-envelope calculations, half-baked thoughts scribbled on restaurant napkins, or hand-waving arguments in which “this” attaches “there” and “that” intersects “here”. Still, in many ways, blind mathematicians work in much the same way as sighted mathematicians do. When asked how he juggles complicated formulas in his head without being able to resort to paper and pencil, Lawrence W. Baggett, a blind mathematician at the University of Colorado, remarked modestly, “Well, it’s hard to do for anybody.” (From The World of Blind Mathematicians)
When he was working on his mathematics, he explained that he would try to say it aloud, pace or talk to himself. Sighted colleagues helped him look up references, figure out what a notation mean or describe in words what was drawn on a blackboard by other colleagues. He had his advanced students read their homework to him individually. This not only helped him to process the information, he could provide personal feedback to these students.
Allan Steinhardt, one of his students, recounted: “My best Math professor was blind. He was brilliant, kind, and inspirational. In those days all lectures were on chalk board. Sometimes he would forget to erase the blackboard and would write over his work. We usually just let it go because he was so clear verbally we almost didn’t need the equations on the chalkboard. Because he had to do it all in his head he really really broke things down into the purest simplest form. Brilliant!”
Baggett spoke about the challenges he faces with humour: “There are still two difficult things about teaching. They’re readin’ and writin’, and I have yet to solve either of those problems to my satisfaction.” However, assistive technology such as Perkins Brallier (braille typewriter), screen-reading software and speech synthesizers had helped him to be much more independent in his work.
Running on four cylinders
Baggett is an expert in abstract harmonic analysis (whatever that means!) and the many areas of mathematics that use its techniques. He has written textbooks on functional analysis, published more than 40 mathematical papers, presented his papers at mathematics conferences, and chaired the mathematics department for 3 years.
He wrote, “It’s not easy being blind, having to spend each day as if it were night, and running on only four out of five cylinders. But one can, in fact, run on four cylinders and run pretty well.”