How to learn enough math to impress a boy?
September 11, 2008 11:51 AM   Subscribe

I've just started dating someone who studies serious hardcore applied math. I am a complete and utter math idiot who is lost at anything above multiplication tables. I would like to sort of understand what is going on inside his massive, beautiful brain. Help?

I am a total visual/language-oriented dude (I edit comic books for a living) and what he does is, quite literally at times, rocket science. Obviously understanding each other's professional lives is not a prerequisite for chemistry, but I do look at this as an interesting challenge.

Clearly, I need books. Or something to study. What kind of texts can get somebody with almost no math knowledge up to at least a glancing familiarity with what's going in the more advanced mathematic principles? Obviously there would be some kind of "levelling up" I'd need to do here, but I just need to know where to start.

This thread was in a similar vein to what I'm getting at, but I'm looking for a somewhat specific course of study.
posted by logovisual to Science & Nature (33 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Read the Five Golden Rules. No study required.

Math theory is basically logic. If you focus on the principles you can understand the conversation that drives the calculation, that's pretty interesting without requiring much math.
posted by ewkpates at 12:01 PM on September 11, 2008

If you're interested enough in it to read up on it, why not ask him to explain it to you? Might be a good challenge/chance to grow for him.
posted by goethean at 12:02 PM on September 11, 2008

I find Larry Gonick's comic books to be a PERFECT "introduction to big hard topics" resource.

I kid you not. I'm up to my fourth volume in his "Cartoon History of the Universe," and I've found him to be incredibly exhaustive and clear, while also being entertaining. He's written a number of "cartoon guides to..." things -- the titles that may help you:

The Cartoon Guide to the Computer (originally The Cartoon Guide to Computer Science)
(reprint edition, Collins, 1991), ISBN 0-06-273097-5

The Cartoon Guide to Physics (with Art Huffman)
(reprint edition, Collins, 1992), ISBN 0-06-273100-9

The Cartoon Guide to Statistics (with Woollcott Smith)
(Collins, 1994), ISBN 0-06-273102-5

I've heard some of his books are used as "supplementary reading" in college courses. He's that good.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:04 PM on September 11, 2008 [4 favorites]

I really liked some of the books by Ian Stewart, to help and explain my girlfriends what that math thing is supposed to be about.

Nature's Numbers is a good generic introduction, without any formulas or difficult greek letters.

Letters to a Young Mathematician is a look at mathematics from a different angle; what it takes to make a career in it, and how many different fields there are; without heavy jargon. Still, it is a nice autobiography as well.
posted by ijsbrand at 12:05 PM on September 11, 2008

Math theory is basically logic.

And suddenly, the ghost of Kurt Gödel rose from the grave and beat ewkpates to death with the set of all things that the ghost of Kurt Gödel didn't use to beat ewkpates to death. ;P
posted by el_lupino at 12:07 PM on September 11, 2008 [16 favorites]

Response by poster: "Math theory is basically logic."

And suddenly, the ghost of Kurt Gödel rose from the grave and beat ewkpates to death with the set of all things that the ghost of Kurt Gödel didn't use to beat ewkpates to death. ;P

And see, right there, you guys have already lost me.

I mean, don't make me start cracking jokes about the Legion of Super-Heroes. You'll get lost just as fast.
posted by logovisual at 12:16 PM on September 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, just joking a bit at ewkpates's expense. Actually, I meant to stick a link in there to a page and I seem to have screwed it up. The short version is that current mathematics draws heavily on the logic of sets. You can think of a number as a set of a certain size or with certain characteristics, for instance, and bigger numbers can be thought of as sets that contain smaller sets.

The advantage is that the logic of sets is more general than mathematics and is well understood. The disadvantage is that there are certain ways of describing sets produce paradoxes and other unexpected results. Gödel turned mathematics and logic on their heads by showing that there were some kinds of things that you simply couldn't prove using those methods, and that any attempt to insert something into the theory to fix it would just produce a further bunch of things that you then couldn't prove. So there are limits to what you can do with a purely logical theory of mathematics - it is incomplete, as they like to say.

More helpfully, a nice little book catering to the non-mathematically inclined reader is The Mathematical Tourist. It may not cover the specific areas he works in, but it's a nice entry point and doesn't presume any background at all.
posted by el_lupino at 12:32 PM on September 11, 2008

This book gets recommended over and over by nerds to nerds everywhere, but if you want to get a grasp on Gödel jokes and some other Deep Thoughts related to Math and Logic, Gödel, Escher, Bach is a dense but readable and enjoyable book. With plenty of illustrations! I am terrible at math too and I liked it.
posted by dreamyshade at 12:34 PM on September 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding goethean. If he's like the other math geeks I've known, he'd love to do the explaining.

Now, tell me a LoSH joke. My favorite members have always been Mon-El and Brainiac 5, if that helps.
posted by kimota at 12:36 PM on September 11, 2008

Seconding GEB. Super-dense, but really a joyful read.
posted by notsnot at 12:58 PM on September 11, 2008

Oooh, thanks for asking this question. 'moonMan is a hardcore math guy studing things with words I don't even being to understand, though I assume they are in English. (Stochasic Processes)

I've been eying GEB with some uncertainty, and the hive mind has convinced me that yes! I will read it! Thanks!
posted by grapefruitmoon at 1:02 PM on September 11, 2008

GEB can be a tough slog at times even if you're used to mathematical thinking and notation. I wonder if you might get more out of some layman-oriented science and math writing. I was thinking Chaos by Gleick. Maybe some of Richard Feynman's books too (eg. "Surely You're Joking"). Those are more about physics, but applied math is likely closer to physics than the deep logic you'd see in GEB.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:18 PM on September 11, 2008

I really liked some of the books by Ian Stewart

Agreed. I liked From here to infinity, whose subtitle suggests it's a "guide to today's mathematics". And the math in his books is good.
posted by leahwrenn at 1:25 PM on September 11, 2008

I don't have any books for you, but since you say you are visual/language-oriented, it may help if you can ask him to explain in those terms. I'm guessing he doesn't expect you to know this stuff and is probably used to explaining what he does at different levels. When I'm asked to explain what I study--it's not math, but it is something that can draw blank stares--I sort of like the challenge of describing it in terms that the person will hopefully understand.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 1:49 PM on September 11, 2008

You are completely and utterly on the wrong track. You say that anything more than multiplication tables and you are lost? You need to realize he likes you because he thinks you're hot and/or interesting as you are. My wife had the right idea - do NOT TOUCH mathematics - explore with him subjective concepts which are beyond mathematical understanding. He is likely to be extremely weak and kind of lost about and that will keep him interested. When you start trying to talk to him about mathematics, he will think you are kind of lame to even attempt an area you are hopeless in.

Here is what my wife did - she read a biography of a mathematician - I think it was David Hilbert - and she talked to me about some aspect of his life which might have explained how we had a strong need for proving certainty. Then there is Godel, who starved himself to death because he was afraid of food poisoning - in an interesting parallel with his consistency paradoxes. Stick to where your strengths are - subjective insights into people - the same stuff that makes you understand why people like comics. It is kind of fascinating to a mathematician that a woman can come along and open up a whole new world into why the completely objectified world of mathematics he loves can have evolved as a mere product of human foibles.
posted by DirtyCreature at 1:50 PM on September 11, 2008 [3 favorites]

One of the best popular mathematics books I've read is Everything and More, by David Foster Wallace. It does a damn fine job of explaining some pretty hairy concepts; you might want to start with this one as a quick(er) warm-up before tackling the Mt. Everest that is Gödel, Escher, Bach.
posted by Johnny Assay at 1:55 PM on September 11, 2008

Try reading this guy's blog "The Narrow Road". He's a math PhD with an interest in teaching, and I found it very insightful.
posted by anthill at 2:34 PM on September 11, 2008

el_lupino writes "And suddenly, the ghost of Kurt Gödel rose from the grave and beat ewkpates to death with the set of all things that the ghost of Kurt Gödel didn't use to beat ewkpates to death. ;P"

Not a paradox; the set used to beat ewkpates is simply not a member of that set, the set of all things NOT used to beat ewkpates, just as the set of all red things is not itself red, or the set of all things longer than a mile is not itself longer than a mile.
posted by orthogonality at 3:59 PM on September 11, 2008

I've read GEB and Gleick's "Chaos" and while both are worth reading, I don't think they're what you're looking for.

I don't think you should ask your date to explain math to you. My SO is a philosopher, and I used to try to get him to explain logic, and the problem was, he'd never stop. Hours would pass. Days would pass. And I could never remember which philosopher thought what. 25 years have now passed, and I still can't remember. But our relationship is fine. We have other topics of conversation.
posted by acrasis at 4:11 PM on September 11, 2008

God knows I'm no math genius - I slowed down after my A in multivariable calc and kind of got lost in tensor algebra and differential equations. But I don't think that the stuff folks work on in "hardcore applied math" has much to do with the beauties of topology, analysis and number and set theory that Hofstadter writes about in GEB.

Applied math is the Hamiltonian, the Lagrangian, the Fourier transform, power series, crystallographic groups, iterative computing approximations of these and other things, and other things that make me physically nauseous even to think about. You won't get a good feel for it by reading Hofstadter.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:49 PM on September 11, 2008

And no, I've never run across a book about the beauty of applied math for laymen. If there is one out there, I suppose I'd like to read it. Maybe. If there were no sharp objects nearby.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:52 PM on September 11, 2008

As someone on the other side of the division you're describing, I felt flattered and pleased when my wife (then girlfriend) just asked me to explain some of what I was studying. Had she gone and bought a bunch of books and studied them on her own, though, it would have been a little...creepy.
posted by voltairemodern at 6:56 PM on September 11, 2008

GEB is a very interesting book, but I don't think it will help you understand (a) applied math, or (b) the mind of a mathematician. (Actually, I'm not convinced that it will help you understand artificial intelligence, either, but that's a different rant.)

A book that I really like is G.H. Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology. It's a short book by a great mathematician at the end of his career, in which he tries to explain why mathematics is beautiful, and why it is worth the careers of so many brilliant people. So, on one hand, it won't teach you any mathematics. But on the other hand, it may be more useful for your purposes than a dozen applied math textbooks.
posted by sesquipedalian at 7:26 PM on September 11, 2008

Ask him to explain a concept to you. As a math buff myself, I find it fun and challenging to describe/explain an advanced/abstract mathematical concept in simple to understand terms. Always a fun challenge.

It'll be much better bonding time than whatever time you spend reading a dumb book (:
posted by Precision at 11:45 PM on September 11, 2008

What Precision said. Sure, he might have trouble explaining set theory and rings and fields and cuts in layman's terms, but that's precisely the fun in everything. Whenever I try to explain a mathematical concept to an otherwise math-inept friend, I try to go with real-world analogies. See if he can do that. It makes things awkward/amusing/stupidly funny.
posted by curagea at 1:40 PM on September 12, 2008

Ask him to explain a concept to you. As a math buff myself, I find it fun and challenging to describe/explain an advanced/abstract mathematical concept in simple to understand terms. Always a fun challenge.

Third that. A lot of the more pure stuff will be pretty difficult to explain without references, but it'll be laugh getting him try to explain regardless. That's half the fun! If you really want a book though, any of the latest wave of popular science books should do the trick (handily, our fellow Mefi users have suggested quite a few good ones).
posted by dragontail at 2:20 PM on September 14, 2008

Seconding Everything and More.
posted by jewzilla at 7:40 AM on September 16, 2008

Godel will get his, mark my words. Einstein will get his first though, because physics has always been more popular than philosophy... probably on account of how we like to see things fly through the air.

But they are both wrong, big time. No incompleteness, no relativity.

The moral: Don't be afraid to be skeptical. If Newton can be wrong, then hell, anyone can be wrong. And there is no such thing as zero.
posted by ewkpates at 11:04 AM on September 16, 2008

ewkpates: Explain?
posted by vernondalhart at 4:40 PM on September 16, 2008

I am a pure mathematics major. If you wanted to have something good to talk about that is a bit of a sidestep from his focus. I would really suggest you take up a book in one or more of the less advanced fields of higher mathematics. If he is like most I know with advanced degrees or whatnot, helping you through some of the tough spots in your learning could truly benefit your willingness to open up to each other in the theory and practice of solving problems. the best parts of learning new stuff and exploring ideas is that, if they are perused in there intended and original context, it can be intellectually exalting.

Know that though mathematics is going to quickly seem a very demanding endeavor if you are doing it for the wrong reasons. you will fare better, in your pursuit, if you do it for the experience and craft of mathematics. my personal motivation in mathematics is the abstraction. but know that math involves almost all types of information, but most only know it by it's common and applicable ones: rote and meticulous.

For good book ideas see:Ask HN: Good books on mathematics for somebody who's only taken high school math?
posted by phllip.phillip at 9:43 PM on September 16, 2008

I have a friend who does applied math and works in the population / epidemiology area. I think she can be intellectually engaged not only by talking about actual math, but also by talking about population issues. So maybe your guy would like to talk about whatever the subject matter is that he applies math to. A thought.

Applied math people may still be interested in "cool" pure-math subjects, though, so I think the pure-math suggestions in this thread are excellent. GEB in particular is a great choice, because logic is one of the coolest pure-math subjects. And if your guy is in(to) computers, he likely has some interest in the computability and AI stuff in there, too.
posted by grobstein at 5:14 PM on September 27, 2008

Along similar lines: Anathem?
posted by grobstein at 6:02 PM on September 27, 2008

I agree with DirtyCreature. I mean, it's very thoughtful of you to take an interest in math, logic and physics - and definitely by all means, you should be interested in talking about it when he brings it up, or if there's something involving math/science in the news or whatever.

However... I'm betting this guy wanted to date you because you offer something ELSE more than than math. The last guy I dated (which is posted on here) - was a mathematics major and a super geek - but a cute one at that. I'm a graphic designer/artist so we're completely on opposite ends of the spectrum. However, I think it work(ed) because opposites attract. Of course for some people, they want to find someone similar - but more often than not, people are looking for someone to fill in what they are not... or the missing pieces if you will.

Coincidently while we were dating, I was taking Geometry and Pre-Calculus at a local JC - whenever I had problems, he would LOVE to help me out. As guys love to help solve problems anyway, it is an ego boost. So that's one idea. But as stated earlier, I think it'll be better for you (esp. if it's more beg. level math) to learn concepts more than applied - b/c it's a lot harder. Read the experts as suggested above and watch movies like "A Beautiful Mind", "Pi", "Gattaca" and other science related.

I'm just saying - Be proud of what you can offer to the relationship b/c I'm sure there are things he is and will be intrigued by you.
posted by freshsprout at 8:01 AM on September 30, 2008

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