enitharmon: (bookrosie)
The Magical Maze: Seeing the World Through Mathematical EyesThe Magical Maze: Seeing the World Through Mathematical Eyes by Ian Stewart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I read this in between other things, in a Kindle edition that came free from Amazon.



This is something unusual: a book about mathematics which is aimed at a general audience but doesn't restrict itself to trivia. So it's a satisfying read for somebody like me, a non-mathematician who nevertheless has had more than a basic exposure to the subject and who continues to take an interest in it at more than a superficial level. That's a gap that there's all too little on the shelves to fill. Though there are few heavy formulae here, Professor Stewart probes more deeply into his material than most.



It follows that those without a mathematical background looking for an overview might find it heavy going. Not that I'd want to put anybody off who wants to make the effort – it's well worth while.





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enitharmon: (Default)
If you wanted to teach yourself a reasonable grasp of theoretical physics from scratch, where would you begin?

Hard Sums

Dec. 5th, 2006 01:58 pm
enitharmon: (Default)
A thick package plopped on my mat this morning - an undergraduate prospectus from Lancaster University. I've been thinking about doing another degree, in maths this time.

The thing is, it's always rankled with me that I struggled with maths when I was young. Yes, I know I got a B at maths A-Level, and I completed my first degree in physics, albeit a pretty undistinguished one, which requires some grasp of maths however much lab work can be counted and essay questions answered in exam papers. But I'm still haunted by the ghost of my 4% in my mock A-level Applied Maths paper, the pages and pages of carefully worked-through prooofs that never got any nearer tyhe expected result (and never came out the same twice running), the sense of dizziness I felt in Uni maths lectures at bizarre concepts like the Gamma Function, the cold sweat induced by the mere sigh of the Schrödinger Wave Equation. What made it worse is that all my peers seemed to take it in their stride.

Earlier this year I bought a textbook of A-Level Pure Maths and I've been working through it steadily in odd moments. To my amazement I find that trigonometric proofs fall out neatly under my fingers, I can manipulate matrices (actually I always liked matrices, I can integrate by parts, at least at a relatively uncomplicated level. It all seems so easy now, almost frustratingly trivial, and I want to go on. Hence the interest in university courses. I want to see if I can take this further, even understand the fearsome Gamma function! And before I die I want to understand wave mechanics.

Mathematicians are supposed to burn out young - why is it, then, that what was so mind-blowingly difficult at 18 makes so much more sense at 52, even having not touched maths with the proverbial bargepole in the intervening years.

Am I too old to do thi, do you think?
enitharmon: (Default)
A thought struck me, following recent digressions on maths and writing.

Mathematics doesn't hit the news very often. When it does, it's usually the story of how the largest known prime number has been identified and it has zillions of digits. This is silly because

  • There's no great mathematics in finding a yet larger prime. It's long been proved there are an infinite number of them, and finding them is a joib for digital brute force rather than mathematical ingenuity.
  • In between waves of media hype about Largest Prime Numbers, several other largest known primes have been identified. The media story is a periodic function!
  • Sure, large primes are valuable in cryptography, but not, I think, ones as large as the Mersenne primes which are being hunted down - the Mersenne primes are, I believe, a special case which are comparatively easy to identify.


No doubt a real mathematician will be along in a minute to tell me that what I just wrote is a load of bollocks. That's fine, I'm happy to be enlightened.

Anyway, enough of that. The thought that struck me was that mathematicians are so much more fortunate people than writers of fiction is because nobody ever tells them that trying to prove the Riemann Hypothesis is pretentious because the Riemann Hypothesis is not relevant to Ordinary People, and they should concentrate on adding up the supermarket bill.

(Another thought that occurred to me was that while Dr du Sautoy skirts around the nature of the Riemann Hypothesis and describes it in vague terms, nowhere does he ever say succinctly what the Riemann Hypothesis actually is. Is there anybody readingt this who could enlighten me?)
enitharmon: (Default)
I found this book

in the local library a couple of weeks ago and I took it home to read, largely because mathematics has been problematical for me all my life.

The book was fascinating, but it was also very frustrating. For one thing, while I don't doubt that Marcus du Sautoy is a very talented mathematician, he isn't much cop as a writer. He repeats himself endlessly and he doesn't pick up a metaphor without flogging it to death. For another thing, it was full of anecdote and name-dropping, but there didn't seem to be an awful lot of actual maths in it.

Long wibble about my troubled relationship with maths )
Would anybody care to comment?

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