I’ve spent the better part of my cognitive existence disliking all things even remotely mathematical. So extreme has been my dislike that I once told a dear and well-meaning friend who tried teaching me quadratic equations that I gave a “rat’s arse” to maths! I now realize that this had more to to do with bad teachers and a deeply ingrained fear of the numbers. Consequently I failed to grasp the beauty of all that is mathematical. Now faced with the prospect of running multi-variable regressions for my social science dissertation, I wish I had taken ‘Maths With Mummy‘ a bit more seriously. I have to admit that I have gotten plenty of help in recent times though.
One avenue of help has been ‘The Language of Mathematics’ by Keith Devlin. Not only is the book beautifully written, with amazing illustrations of the Klein bottle, minimal surfaces and so on; but is also a really fascinating journey through the history of mathematical thought. I didn’t know for example, that Riemannian geometry upset Greek mathematical thought so much, (Devlin discusses the Greek precursors to Riemannian geometry) that mathematicians were thrown off ships!
What I find the most engaging and elegant though, is Devlin’s definition of mathematics. As he points out, maths is not only about numbers and what you can do with them, it is the study of patterns. Some thoughts, like this, change the way you look at a subject forever.
The other avenue that has in recent times fueled my mathematical curiosity is Michio Kaku’s book on Hyperspace. I grew up watching Star Trek Enterprise; with Spock materializing and re-materializing between dimensions. In later years I graduated to Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent racing through hyperspace to save civilizations, eat and create improbability fields out of Brownian motion and a cup of tea.
Like my mathematics, my physics too was terrible all through school. I had no idea why Anti-Logs mattered or why the Ohm’s law always gave the same result. I did however love science fiction, and still do. Michio Kaku’s book is probably the only science book I have ever read without a break. It abounds with tales of flat-landers, goldfish and the mannerisms of some of the greatest physicists the world has ever seen.
What I particularly love about this book though, is not the fantastic ease with which it has been written, but the fact that the author tells me how a physicist thinks. Mathematicians and physicists do what they do because they see beauty and elegance in proofs. Wow.
If there are just two books in your entire life that you should read concerning all things mathematical, read these. They’ll change the way you look at numbers and perhaps even your life. And along the way, you might, just like me find writing a mathematical dissertation a little less painful if not fun too!