Counting to 30,000 in Japanese

22 07 2008
The Kids’ University makes it happen — Overlooking gorillas
It’s time for Kids’ University again. The diminutive students-to-be crowd into the lecture halls of the venerable University. “Phone me when the lecture’s over,” is the instruction they get from the mums who’ll be picking them up again when the show’s over. Mobile phones are a godsend. The adults can spend an hour wandering around downtown Heidelberg while their offspring are imbibing all the latest news from the research front.

Other parents decide to stay put and tuck into coffee and cake outside the lecture hall. Inside, their kids are finding out that secret codes have a lot to do with mathematics: Professor Angela Stevens is chalking up some pretty formidable-looking formulas on the blackboard. Another subject where maths is indispensable is “cellular automatons” and Professor Peter Fischer even gets his young audience to do some of the sums themselves. The idea is to form a so-called Pascal’s triangle. It’s a triangle consisting of rows of numbers. The apex is 1 and each row starts and ends with 1. Other numbers are obtained by adding together the two numbers on either side in the row above. Not easy to do, but the pint-sized students soon get the hang of it.

In Dr. Daniel Memmert’s class, things initially look a little easier. His topic is football and anyone can play that game. But to get really good, players have to have certain skills, like creativity, and it’s the coach’s job to help them develop those skills. But if the trainer gives them too many instructions, their creativity will suffer as a result. Daniel Memmert illustrates the point with two brief videos. Two teams of three players each throw a ball back and forth and the children are asked to count how often that happens in one of the teams. The answer is 14 times. “Did anything else strike you in the video?” the sport scientist asks his audience. In fact, a gorilla ran through the picture. But not all the kids saw it, in fact only about a third of them. The others were so fixated on the ball contacts that they didn’t even notice the ape. “The same thing happens to soccer players when they’re too preoccupied with the coach’s instructions,” Daniel Memmert explains. Then they overlook not a great big ape on the pitch but an unmarked player on their own side.

In the workshops Japanese is on the agenda. “We learned to count up to 30,000” one of the participants reports. But Ana-Bettina Wuthenow’s crash course is not restricted to figures. Japanese food is also on the menu. Though there are no titbits to sample, the little students know by the end of the class what soy is in Japanese. In the workshop run by Mie Nakahiro-van den Berg and Yuki Takahashi origami is the topic of the day, the art of making beautiful things by folding paper. In the 90-minute class the children learn how to make figures ranging from simple helmets to adorable little tortoises.

Forms are also the subject of Professor Ulrich Schwarz’ lecture, where he goes into the question of why nature so often prefers round shapes. The solution is really quite simple. Soap bubbles and raindrops both want a surface that is as small as possible and for that a sphere is the best solution. But rectangular forms can also be a good idea, particularly when stability is at a premium.

The little students soak up so much knowledge that their parents are just as amazed as they are. And if the soccer players of the future pass on their knowledge to the right quarters, then the next World Cup should be a walkover.
Stefan Zeeh
© Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung
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