Some mathematics books I have found interesting
Mathematics books have an unfair reputation for being dry and dull, and this is not always the case. I will grant you that many maths books are dry, dull and best avoided (at least until you need them!).
However, over the past few decades, there has been a lot of writing which is exciting, fun, interesting and full of surprises. This page is a record of a few that I have found to be all of these things. Some are old books, one going back several millenia, some are right up to date, and many at all points in between.
Some of these books will be more interesting to teachers of the subject, but many will be of interest to students of the subject, especially those seeking to get a genuine answer to the eternal maths student question: "When will I ever use this in real life?
The books are not in any particular order, so apologies to any who would like a more orderly approach. One person's order is another's chaos (in the colloquial, rather than the mathematical sense!).
- How not to be wrong (The hidden maths of everyday life) by Jordan Ellenberg.
This is a brilliant book which should be devoured by anyone who thinks (as I did for many years) that Statistics is boring. The book covers a multitude of different areas where the application of statistical theory has been used to do everything from where to put armour on war planes to how you can win some lotteries using mathematics. It is a real page turner; Ellenberg write very well indeed and I have now read it twice and quote from it a lot in my lessons.
- Genius by James Gleik.
This is a biography of one of the most brilliant physicists of the 20th century, Richard Feynman. It's not strictly a maths book, being about a physicist, but Feynman's extraordinary grasp of mathematics lay behind his brilliance in his own field. He was also a fascinating and somewhat mercurial personality who was as likely to be found playing the bongos as creating extraordinary physics.
- Prime Obsession by John Derbyshire.
I'm not a fan of his politics but this history of the ellusive Reimann hypothesis is fascinating, though the maths does get quite tough as the book progresses.
- The Music of the Primes by Marcus de Sautoy.
Marcus de Sautoy's books are always worth reading. He, along with a bunch of other mathematics popularisers, has written some of the best books about the fun to be had by delving into the world of mathematics. This volume is another Reimann Hypoothesis book and is a great deal easier to read than Derbyshire's book. In it he manages to connect music theory with the seemingly random incidence of the prime numbers.
- The Elements by Euclid of Alexandria.
One of the towering achievements in mathematical literature. Written around 300BCE. Most of the geometric bits of maths courses owe a great deal to this book about how we can use a pair of compasses and a straight edge to examine all sorts of fascinating things. From how to inscribe a rhombus in any triangle to the earliest written record of Pythagoras' Theorem (which probably wasn't discovered by Pythagoras), via producing a line of length √2 giving a line of length 1 unit.
This book has been adapted and brought up to date in recent times in an app available on the web, as an Android or iOS app called Euclidea which may be my favourite find of the past year. More of this on the page in this site about useful software.
- How to Solve it by Georg Polya.
This was one of my set books when I was studying to be a teacher and it has stayed with me ever since. This is probably more suited to teachers of mathematics but it has some extraordinary things to say about solving problems in mathematics (an area called Heuristics). Among them "If you can't solve a difficult problem, solve a simple one instead." (this is probably a paraphrase as I don't have the book in front of me, but that one sentence changed the way I though about mathematical problems.
- Chaos by James Gleik.
Another from Mr Gleik, this time about Chaos Theory. A fascinating introduction to this relatively modern and popular area of maths. Chaos theory uses some seriously clever mathematics to draw some very beautiful pictures.
- Does God Play Dice? by Ian Stewart
Another Chaos theory book this time from the redoubtable Ian Stewart who was at the vanguard of popular books about mathematics and is a professor of mathematics at Warwick University. This is a fascinating book which I first read in 1989 and still return to from time to time. The title is from a quote from Albert Einstein on Quantum theory (which Einstein didn't think much of).
- The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers by David Wells.
This as they say, does exactly what it says on the tin. It is a dictionary though not in alphabetical order ,but in numerical order. We start with -1 and i and moves on through many others to Graham's number (which isn't strictly a number, more a notation for seriously big numbers.) "If all the material in the universe were turned into pen and ink, it would not be enough to write down Graham's number." That big!
- The Code book by Simon Singh.
This is a history book all about codes and how they have been used, misused and cracked down the ages. It is a story that intersects with ordinary history in many places and helps us to understand the history better. (Did you know that Mary Queen of Scots (for example) lost her head largely because of a seriously clever advance in code breaking techniques by Franscis Walsingham, who was Queen Elizabeth I's spymaster general.
There are a few to be going along with. This page will be updated from time to time with others books as I either remember or read them.
Happy maths reading!