Scott Flansburg is good with numbers. Very good.
For the last 20 years, the man nicknamed the “Human Calculator” has entertained (and along the way, taught) with math. He is the Guiness World Record holder for his calculating skills.
Flansburg is one of 35 people speaking at the Life Is Beautiful Festival’s Learning Program, but he’s made a deeper commitment to Las Vegas. Most recently a resident of San Diego, he has a contract to work with the students in the Clark County School District this year and like his friend Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who introduced him to Southern Nevada, Flansburg plans to live here.
He’ll have plenty to do.
There are 217 elementary schools in Clark County, and every school has a math coordinator and a lot of potential young geniuses.
Of course, in a world blanketed by electronic calculating machinery, why bother with math?
“Numbers are a language, and it is the most powerful and precise language on the earth, and it is the most used,” Flansburg says. “It is the underlying order of the universe. We cannot afford not to understand numbers.”
He notes that the Clark County School District is rated one of the worst in America, and young women and men are graduating high school without understanding the basics of personal finance. So there are local and national challenges. Addressing those challenges means building an understanding of and ability to use arithmetic, the fundamental syntax of that language of math and numbers.
Flansburg, 40, says he knows he’s got a tough gig. People are aghast and alarmed by illiteracy, but freely, even boastfully, admit to not understanding basic math.
“It has become socially acceptable to be bad at math,” he says. “It is amazing.”
Flansburg says he can take just about anyone, kid or adult, and in an hour or so make them a better human calculator. One of his fundamentals is his numeric system which starts with zero and ends on your last little finger with the number nine; nine, for Flansburg, is the key to unlocking the mysteries of numbers.
He says he came to an epiphany on the power of nine while playing golf with not-famous mathematician, rocker Alice Cooper.
On the 18th hole, Cooper noted that he had written a song called “18,” and that one plus eight equaled nine. Flansburg thought about nines, and the number 13. One plus three equals four. Thirteen minus four equals nine. Nine, nine, nine, it comes up again and again.
And the day, he improbably insists that this epiphany came to him? Flansburg says it was Sept. 9, 1999. That is, 9-9-99.
“Right now we’re just making kids memorize,” he says. “Kids are so afraid of math. You can sense all the anxiety in the room. My mission is to give them a positive experience with math, so they can go out and discover the world.
He says the school district will launch a “math challenge” in November, based on the idea of popular school spelling bees, to identify the top “mathletes.”
Flansburg will be busy visiting schools, and he’s recently come out with a book he’d like you to buy, and he’s developing a stage show that both entertains and educates. He hopes that a casino would be interested.
All of this will be part of his talk, and he can show off some amazing, Rain Man-style feats of calculation, like telling you what day of the week you were born based on your birthday.
Flansburg says his talk at the Life Is Beautiful Festival is going to be fun for all ages.
Vegas is, after all, full of casinos built on the probabilities of numbers.
“If you love math, my show is great,” he says. “If you hate math, my show is perfect.”
Flansburg will speak Sunday at 2:15 p.m. at the Fremont Country Club, 601 E. Fremont St.