Kaplan, Ellen 1936–

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Kaplan, Ellen 1936–

(Ellen Franzen Kaplan)


Born March 8, 1936, in New York, NY; daughter of Arthur and Ruth Franzen; married Robert L. Kaplan, October 23, 1957; children: Michael. Education: Radcliffe College, A.B., 1957; Harvard University, M.A., 1959.


Office—The Math Circle, c/o Elizabeth F. Potter, K&L, One Lincoln St., Boston, MA. E-mail—[email protected]


Commonwealth School, Boston, MA, teacher, 1959-97; Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, faculty member, 1989; The Math Circle, Cambridge, MA, cofounder and codirector, beginning 1994; New Jewish High School, Waltham, MA, chair of mathematics department, 1997-2000. Also constructed mathematics curriculum at Nuffield Foundation, Dorset, England, 1965-66, and the history curriculum at the Educational Development Corporation, Cambridge, MA, 1967-68. Chair of the board, Sage School, Foxborough, MA, 1995-98.


Fulbright Fellowship, Germany, 1957-58; National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, 1985; National Science Foundation fellow, 1992.


(With husband, Robert Kaplan, and illustrator) The Art of the Infinite: The Pleasures of Mathematics, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2003.

(With son, Michael Kaplan) Chances Are … : Adventures in Probability, Viking (New York, NY), 2006.

(With Robert Kaplan, and illustrator) Out of the Labyrinth: Setting Mathematics Free, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2007.


Ellen Kaplan was trained as a classical archaeologist and is the founder, with her husband, Robert, of the Math Circle, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to joyous participatory learning in mathematics. On the Math Circle Web site, the authors explain their purpose: "The teaching of mathematics is always in crisis, but we at the Math Circle have found a way to bring people of all ages, from 5 to 60, into the great conversation: that on-going dialogue between mind and the world. The deep joys of inventing and discovering math belong to everyone, and the Math Circle has succeeded in providing a forum for the free discussion and play which leads to that joy."

Kaplan has collaborated on books both with her husband and with her son, Michael. The author wrote her first book, The Art of the Infinite: The Pleasures of Mathematics, with her husband. She is also the book's illustrator. In the book's opening section, titled "An Invitation," the authors write: "We are the language makers and what we express always refers to something—though not, perhaps, to what we first thought it did. Talk of the infinite naturally belongs to that old, young, ageless conversation about number and shape which is mathematics: a conversation most of us overhear rather than partake in, put off by its haughty abstraction." The authors continue: "The way in is to begin at the beginning and move conversation- ally along. Eccentric, lovable, laughable, base and noble mathematicians will keep us company."

The Art of the Infinite looks at the concept of infinity through the minds of a variety of thinkers, from Pythagoras to René Descartes and on to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. The Kaplans provide a thorough review of the mathematics of infinity via text and illustrations. In their explanation of infinity, the authors draw on everything from mathematics to children's nursery rhymes and fiction of past ages. Jack W. Weigel, writing in the Library Journal, felt that "the Kaplans' approach makes for very enjoyable reading." Gilbert Taylor reported in Booklist that the authors "prove themselves enlightening and entertaining ambassadors to the world of mathematics."

Kaplan and her son, Michael, who is a filmmaker, are the authors of Chances Are … : Adventures in Probability. Here, mother and son look at the role of chance in human affairs. They begin by tracing the concept of probability thinking back to the 1660s and the fascination with gambling. They then go on to show how this type of thinking affected not only science but also religion and philosophy. The authors profile many of the pioneers of early statistics, such as the medieval missionary who invented combinatorics while looking to convert Muslims by showing that any statement combining the qualities of God was true in the Christian faith. "The Kaplans cover a lot of ground very quickly, but they have a finely tuned sense of where the general reader is likely to lose a grip on the math, or on the complexities of an argument, and adjust accordingly," observed New York Times Book Review contributor William Grimes.

Ultimately, the Kaplans explore mathematics from its earliest principles on through to the promise of the math of probabilities via modern applications, such as its uses in drug development and even military combat strategies. "In Chances Are, Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan look at the role of chance in human affairs, and the efforts of the best minds to measure and tame it by constructing a science of probability," reported Grimes, adding: "The authors choose their examples cleverly and explain them through arresting metaphor." A Publishers Weekly contributor concluded: "Never before has statistics been treated with such awe and devotion."

Kaplan teams with her husband again to write Out of the Labyrinth: Setting Mathematics Free, serving as illustrator, as well. This time the Kaplans explain their highly successful approach for teaching and making mathematics popular and interesting. Written as a guide for both parents and educators, the book begins by looking at the state of modern math education and what the authors perceive as its failures. They then go on to describe how math should be taught as a game of intellectual play via a process that dismantles the barriers that people have toward math, such as math language or the belief that math is only for people who are born with mathematical talents. Throughout the book, the authors use puzzles, practical equations, and even anecdotes from their own classroom to detail their program.

"I encourage teachers, administrators, and parents to embrace the approach emphasized by the author[s] … as a means through which everyone collaborates in helping students to enjoy math freedom—particularly through the use of … different ways of problem solving," Luis T. Conde stated in Childhood Education.



Kaplan, Ellen, and Robert Kaplan, The Art of the Infinite: The Pleasures of Mathematics, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2003.


Booklist, April 15, 2003, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Art of the Infinite, p. 1436; March 1, 2006, Gilbert Taylor, review of Chances Are … : Adventures in Probability, p. 52.

California Bookwatch, May, 2006, review of Chances Are.

Childhood Education, spring, 2008, Luis T. Conde, review of Out of the Labyrinth: Setting Mathematics Free, p. 175.

Choice, December, 2003, W.R. Lee, review of The Art of the Infinite, p. 744.

Library Journal, April 1, 2003, Jack W. Weigel, review of The Art of the Infinite, p. 124.

Mathematics Teacher, November, 2007, Thomas Sonnabend, review of Out of the Labyrinth, p. 319.

New Scientist, August 9, 2003, Ben Longstaff, "Figure It Out," review of The Art of the Infinite, p. 53.

New York Times Book Review, March 31, 2006, William Grimes, "Wonders Are Possible. Alas, the Odds Are Another Story," review of Chances Are.

Publishers Weekly, February 20, 2006, review of Chances Are, p. 153.

School Library Journal, August, 2003, Paul Brink, review of The Art of the Infinite, p. 189.

Science News, May 3, 2003, review of The Art of the Infinite, p. 287; February 17, 2007, review of Out of the Labyrinth, p. 111.

SciTech Book News, December, 2004, review of The Art of the Infinite, p. 38.

Times Higher Education Supplement, March 12, 2004, David Acheson, "Lie-in for Eureka Moments," review of The Art of the Infinite, p. 31.

Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 2006, Waldo Jaquith, review of Chances Are, p. 273.


Math Circle,http://www.themathcircle.org/ (April 17, 2008), author profile.

Penguin Group Web site,http://us.penguingroup.com/ (April 17, 2008), author profile.

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