All entries for Monday 28 December 2009

December 28, 2009

Popular Maths

Christmas is over, and a lot of us are presumably already enjoying our new presents. For me, no Christmas is complete without getting at least a couple of books, a present I always welcome. Lest I should sound like a total dweeb, I'd like to point out that I also wished for, and received, more standard presents. Still, a geek is a geek, and if you have followed my blog thus far -- or if you've had a peek at the 'About Me' section -- you may not be surprised to hear that I'm often given books discussing mathematical topics.

This year, however, I explicitly stated that I did not wish for any such books.

The reasons are twofold: First, it is a lot easier for me to decide which books are interesting and at the right level, and which books are too dull or too trivial. Additionally that means I can buy them second-hand, which saves money as well as paper. It is the second reason, though, that I want to focus on in this post. It may sound odd, but the majority of popular maths books that could potentially be a Christmas present, do not in fact target mathematicians like myself. Rather, they are meant to be enjoyed as gentle introductions to certain maths-related topics, to people whose main area of expertise is not maths. An appetizer, if you will. So whenever Iget one of these books, I always feel a little sad that whoever bought the book for me, did not buy it for him- or herself. 

Popular science books (books on popular science), such as Richard Dawkins' 'The Selfish Gene' and Bill Bryson's 'A Short History of Nearly Everything, are cropping up everywhere. Likewise, there are also plenty of popular maths books out there, some of which have received considerable attention and praise from the general public. Ian Stewart is worth mentioning in this context due to the popularity and success of his popular maths books, ranging from the serious, but still accessible, works ('Does God Play Dice', 'Letters to a Young Mathematician') to the more playful ones ('Professor Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities', 'Math Hysteria'). Then there are books which explore presents one concept in detail, but in layman terms (like 'Imagining numbers', 'Fermat's Last Theorem'), books which explore a wide range of topics on a superficial level (like "Why Do Buses Come In Threes?' or 'How to Cut A Cake'), books which give a brief introduction to maths in general ('Introduction to Mathematics'), and so on.  Not to mention the somewhat childish yet extremely enjoyable 'Murderous Maths' series. I have read many of these, and always find them agreeable to read, but when I'm confronted for the 55th time with a detailed presentation of the golden ratio, I can't help thinking: I shouldn't be the one reading this.

Stephen Hawking writes in 'A Brief History of Time':

Someone told me that each equation I included in the book would halve the sales

Most popular maths books are therefore written in an informal style and contains as few equations as possible, so as not to scare the reader. In fact, this is the main feature that distinguishes a popular maths book from a standard maths book. The author usually takes care not to lose the reader in his reasoning, and it is these clear explanations that sometimes make me realise: someone else should read this. I think this is where the problem lies. People think that any kind of maths is beyond them, and that they will never be able to understand or appreciate it. They think that what lies between the covers of those books is an inaccessible world, when in fact the content of such books is not the 'real' maths that university students are being taught, but a modified version of it, specifically designed to be understood by the non-specialist. My Algebra lecture notes are an example of a text that requires a certain degree of mathematical ability to read; 'How To Cut A Cake' isn't.

Please, come visit Mount Maths. It's a little lonely up here. But the view is incredible.


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