The Sunday Magazine

These Canadians find elegance, poetry and joy in mathematics

Meet a group of math lovers who have always found beauty, bliss and brilliance in their favourite subject, mathematics. Members of the Toronto Math Club get together monthly to find creative solutions to vexing problems. Talin Vartanian's documentary about them and about the subject most of us love to hate, is called "Beautiful Solutions."
C. P. Man solving a vexing math problem at a recent meeting of the Toronto Math Club. (Talin Vartanian)

Originally published on February 8, 2019.

A small group of number-loving adults gets together regularly to share their passion for a subject many people love to hate: math. The members of the Toronto Math Club embrace the elegance of equations, find joy in geometry and adore algebra.

In an email to The Sunday Edition, founder Alex Pintilie wrote: "There are math clubs for students out there; and there are all kinds of other clubs for grown-ups — golf, bridge, choir, dramatic arts, running, biking, chess. But there is no other club where adults get together and have fun solving math problems. Yes, we meet once a month, eat pizza and pastries, and solve intriguing and enthralling math problems."

I can tell you math is beautiful, but you probably won't believe me unless you learn the language.- Alex Pintilie


"I can tell you math is beautiful, but you probably won't believe me unless you learn the language," Pintilie told Sunday Edition producer Talin Vartanian, who recently dropped in on a meeting of the math club. Pintilie believes the club may be the only one of its kind in the country.

He described math as a language and says that when people master the language, they will find poetry and beauty in it. The math club members, he said, are "reciting poems in mathematics!"

The members work in different fields. They are engineers, statisticians, government employees and math teachers. What they have in common is their love of math. They submit interesting problems to Pintilie before each meeting, and he assembles the best ones in a handout.

Meet the members of the Toronto Math Club. Seated on the far right is founder Alex Pintilie. Beside him are C. P. Man and Lesley Mason. (Talin Vartanian)

For the first hour of the meeting, they ponder the questions independently, then discuss them. The problems they most enjoy are those with many different solutions. Once, Pintilie said, they were thrilled to find seven ways to solve the same problem, using methods such as analytical geometry, Euclidean geometry, similar triangles and trigonometry.

Lesley Mason, a retired math teacher who now works for the federal government, offered an unusual analogy for the challenge of solving a difficult math problem. She likened it to a white-water journey on a northern Canadian river.

"When you make your way down the river, you don't simply hop in the canoe and away you go. You, first of all, walk along the side of the river. You do what's called reading the river. You look at all the obstacles along the way and how you might best make your way through those. And you do the same when you're looking at a problem," Mason said.

Lesley Mason guides the Toronto Math Club through her solution. (Talin Vartanian)

"You don't simply jump into it and start to write the answer. You consider different directions you might take to get the most elegant and shortest solution."

One of the founding members of the Toronto Math Club is a retired power generation engineer, an 86-year-old named C. P. Man who, at each meeting, is given the honour of being first to share his solution to a problem. He often amazes the others by recalling math equations he learned five or six decades ago.

"You must find out, first of all, the key to the solution. That's important," said Man. "To solve math, it doesn't rely on memory, it's analytical power. You need to find the key. There's always a key in a problem!"

Members of the Toronto Math Club grapple with problems on their own before discussing them as a group. (Talin Vartanian)

Pintilie is enthusiastic about sharing the excitement that members of the math club feel at every meeting.  "In my heart", he said, "I believe there may be more people out there who would like to experience this thrill."

The Toronto Math Club welcomes new members, and Pintilie said he would be happy to advise anyone who would like to start a similar group in their own community. You may write to him via The Sunday Edition. 

Want to test your skills? Try one these five math problems below — the exact type that the Toronto Math Club does for fun! 

Click 'listen' above to hear the documentary. 


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