Why don’t people appreciate math?

“It saddens me that educated people don’t even know that my subject exists.” – Paul Halmos

Why is it that so many people have no idea what mathematics is really about?  Why is it that the general public views math as boring and ugly?  Because most people view mathematicians as human calculators, computing gigantic multiplication problems in their heads.  While, in some rare cases, this is certainly true, I have learned from some brilliant mathematicians who couldn’t even master their times tables.

What the general public doesn’t realize is that mathematics is so much more than computation.   It is about discovering patterns and relationships between ideas.  In many cases, there is something beautiful when a mathematical idea makes a clever connection between two concepts, especially when it is unexpected.

Recently, in an OP-ED piece in the New York Times, Manil Suri attempts to explain what mathematics is about and why it is something to appreciate, much in the same way one appreciates art or music.  As he puts it in his piece,  “you can appreciate art without acquiring the ability to paint, or enjoy a symphony without being able to read music.  Math also deserves to be enjoyed for its own sake, without being constantly subjected to the question, ‘When will I use this?'”

Click here to read his article titled “How to Fall in Love with Math.”  You will not be disappointed.

THE BOY WHO LOVED MATH: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdős


Three weeks from today, math-lovers around the world will be enjoying a new look at Paul Erdős!  June 25th is the release date of the newest book on Paul Erdős, THE BOY WHO LOVED MATH: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdős by Deborah Heiligman with illustrations by LeUyen Pham.

I can’t wait!  Click here to read the first review of the book.  Click here to see some amazing illustrations and read an article about the book in the New York Times.  21 days and counting …

Happy Birthday to Carl Friedrich Gauss!

Happy Birthday to Carl Friedrich Gauss!  Born on April 30, 1777 in Brunswick, Germany, Gauss is considered by most to be the greatest mathematician of all time.

Like many great mathematicians, Gauss showed his incredible mental abilities at a young age.  Before the age of three, Gauss taught himself to read by simply asking his parents for the pronunciations of the letters.  By the age of three, Gauss had a mastery of arithmetic as is often retold in the story of him finding a mistake in the arithmetic of his father’s payroll calculations.  During his teen years, Gauss was improving upon the proofs of NewtonEuler and Lagrange, determined to make the proofs more rigorous in nature.  In fact, this effort forever changed the way mathematical proofs are written.

However, despite all of these early achievements, Gauss was still considering a career in linguistics instead of mathematics.  Thankfully, for the sake of mathematics, this changed on March 30, 1796.  It is on this day that Gauss wrote in his diary that he had discovered a solution to one of the greatest unsolved problems of Euclidean geometry, the construction of regular polygons.  So impressed with the solution to this problem, Gauss decided to dedicate his life to mathematics.  It wasn’t long before Gauss would impress himself again.  On April 8, 1796, Gauss proved the Law of Quadratic Reciprocity.  His favorite of all the theorems, he is credited with at least a half-dozen proofs of it during his lifetime.

As Gauss’ life continued, so did his achievements.  Too many to mention specifically, Gauss made groundbreaking contributions in Number Theory, Differential Geometry, Statistics, the Method of Least Squares, Complex Analysis and non-Euclidean Geometry.  In 1801, Gauss published Disquisitiones Arithmeticae, considered by many to be one of the greatest achievements in all of mathematics.  Beyond mathematics, Gauss also rewrote physics with major contributions to the fields of electricity and magnetism.  As if that weren’t enough, Gauss was also a bit of an inventor.  He is credited with inventing the heliotrope to help with his job as a surveyor.  And, with colleague Wilhelm Weber, he was the first to invent the telegraph.

If there is to be one major criticism of Gauss, it is with his reluctance to publish his discoveries.  Gauss, ever the perfectionist, did not like to publish many of the results of his research, fearing that they were never perfect enough.  Or, as Gauss would describe it later in life, “pauca sed matura” (few, but ripe).  In fact, most of what Gauss discovered was not known until after his death when colleagues went through his mathematical diary.  Looking at this as a major travesty to mathematics, it is the opinion of the famous mathematician, historian and mathematical romantic E.T. Bell that Gauss’ reluctance to publish his discoveries set mathematics back at least 50 years.

If you are interested in learning more about Gauss, please check out some of these resources:

If you would like to see my mathematical collection, some of which is dedicated to Gauss, you can click here.

Google honors Euler!

Euler doodle

Kudos to Google!

Today marks the 306th birthday of Leonhard Euler and, thanks to Google, millions of non-math people are being exposed to some of his incredible achievements through this great doodle.

If you are interested in reading more about Euler, here are some great resources:

Happy Birthday, Euler!

Happy 100th Birthday to Paul Erdős!

Happy 100th!

Happy 100th!

March 26 is the birthday of one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, Paul Erdős.  Considering this fact, it should be easy to write some sort of tribute, right?  Well, maybe not.  When I originally wrote this post a few years ago to celebrate his birthday, I was very intimidated.  I was worried that, no matter what I wrote, I wouldn’t write enough to honor his memory.  I even wondered what I should write about.

Maybe I should write about the fact that he was gifted mathematician?  Erdős is said to rival Leonard Euler as the most prolific mathematician in history, having produced some 1500 mathematical papers, many with collaborators.

Maybe I should write about his quirks?  He could be known to appear at your doorstep, unannounced, for an extended visit, announcing that his “brain is open”.  Legend has it that he had trouble tying his shoes, buttering his toast and opening containers of orange juice.  He loved ping-pong.  Even his childhood was unique.

Maybe I should write about Erdős as the philanthropist?  Erdős had little need for money so most of the money he earned was donated … whether to charities, needy friends or to set up scholarships.  If there was someone, anywhere, who needed financial help, Erdős was there.

Or, maybe I should leave it up to a professional wordsmith?  In 1996, columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote a beautiful and touching tribute to Erdős, titled “Paul Erdős, Sweet Genius”.   I think I made the right choice.

If this isn’t enough and you are interested in learning more about Paul Erdős, you can read a more academic biography by clicking on this link.  If reading a book is more to your liking, here are three to consider.

  • The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman  (Click here to read my brief synopsis.)
  • My Brain is Open by Bruce Schechter  (Click here to read my brief synopsis.)
  • THE BOY WHO LOVED MATH: The improbable life of Paul Erdős by Deborah Heiligman – available in June 2013 (Click here to read the first review.  Click here to see some of the AMAZING illustrations and read an article about it in the New York Times.)

If you are interested in a few items that I have written about him, you can consider reading these.

Happy 100th Birthday, Paul!