Being able to point out the idiocy of math tattoos
May 22, 2011 4:23 AM   Subscribe

How do I pick up an amateur hobby?

Hi. I don't know how SATs work now, but when math was out of 800, I got a 710. Last time I took a math course was my freshman 8AM Calc course. I missed most of those, but got a B-. I think I got lucky. I also took a semester of kinda advanced stats for a research course I had to take. I hated it after I realized this will never be useful in anything I will ever do in the future. I ended up passing with a B- and remember absolutely nothing. So pretty much, I'm not your BRILLIANT math guy. But I get by. Now, I want some math skillz.

I'm thinking of changing some hobbies, and I think that learning math could double as a form of self-improvement. I'm not all geeked out about math, but I do feel this would be something I could do start enjoying if I knew what to look for. That's the problem. I don't know what to look for. I'm not doing it for any specific professional value, I just wanna learn math, man. Statistics...not so much. I kinda wanna stay away from that natural prophylactic. Just math.

So mefites, how can I go about getting me some math skillz?
posted by hal_c_on to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 92 users marked this as a favorite
Khan Academy is a great start, it goes from 1+1 to calculus. Chances are you will find something useful there.

Academic Earth and MIT OCW go quite a bit further.. Maths is a very deep rabbit hole.

I recommend khan Academy and science documentaries to start off with, science docos are always a great reminder on the application and awe of mathematics.
posted by Zemoth at 5:16 AM on May 22, 2011 [10 favorites]

For fun, check out Vihart.
posted by litnerd at 5:17 AM on May 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

What type of maths are you interested in? There are lots of different types of maths... abstract algebra, set theory and logic, linear algebra, probability theory, and obviously calculus. You can love discrete maths and loathe calculus, etc.

I would say that if you want some generic "maths skillz" that will hold you in good stead, go with Gilbert Strang's Linear Algebra book and open-course video lectures. Of course MIT has tons of great open course ware, so you can have a look around the maths section and see what tickles your fancy.
posted by moorooka at 5:21 AM on May 22, 2011

advanced stats for a research course I had to take. I hated it

It's too bad that stats often gets a bad rap after (nearly) everyone has a bad experience with a required research methods stats course.

Anyways, some probability theory and linear algebra would let you explore all kinds of interesting things: the math behind search engines, the math behind gambling and games of chance, how people are able (or not able) to make predictions about stochastic systems like the weather, the environment, the stock market; artificial intelligence, machine learning and pattern recognition, like how the post office uses computers to read handwriting... All of these things might be called Statistics (ie they're all about making probabilistic statements or drawing inferences), but it gets a lot more interesting than what's often taught into an intro stats for research course.

As others said, MIT's open courseware is a great resource...
posted by JumpW at 6:30 AM on May 22, 2011

I post this book in almost every math thread. It's a great (and very accessible) intro to some assorted math topics, and could make a good springboard for further research.

As a warning: reading math books is a different process than reading literature or history books. They require you to actively work out solutions and complete the author's logical jumps. Math writers (over)value brevity, which can lead to a lot of confusion if you've missed a key component earlier on. Don't let this discourage you! Reading math texts is a skill which, like all skills, must develop over time. (The Heart of Mathematics text I linked above actually avoids this pretty well, which is one reason I like it so much.) Good Luck!
posted by Wulfhere at 7:24 AM on May 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

If you want to do math as a hobby, then you should start reading Martin Gardner's collections of his "Mathematical Games" column from Scientific American.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:47 AM on May 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

Instead of jumping into one subject, what about trying to get a broad general view by reading up on the history of mathematics? The stories and personalities behind the creation of "modern" mathematics are really fascinating: Axiomatic set theory, incompleteness, Hilbert's problems, etc.

If you want more stuff like calculus, take a stab at real analysis or differential equations.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 7:48 AM on May 22, 2011

Seconding anything by Martin Gardner.
posted by schrodycat at 8:03 AM on May 22, 2011

Martin Gardner is an excellent starting off point. He was the spark that made an amateur mathematician out of Marjorie Rice.

Mathematics is an incredibly deep and wide subject - but the really nifty part is that there are some bits that are really shallow because people just haven't spent much time looking at them. You could actually become a legit expert in some (obscure and tiny) branch of mathematics if you wanted to, just by virtue of being the person who chooses to work on it.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 8:04 AM on May 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

I suggest getting Raymond Smullyan's book, The Lady or the Tiger. In it, there is a "mathematical novel" called "The Case of the Monte Carlo Lock". If you work your way through it, you are actually working through a proof of Gödel's incompleteness theorem (an important mathematical discovery of the 20th century). It is written in a way that even non-mathematicians can follow.
posted by King Bee at 8:16 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think that's a commendable hobby, and very self-contained. Not many folks will appreciate it, but it's important that there be a body of folks who can appreciate math.

I recommend reading the entire "World of Mathematics" series of books by James Newman. Covers about 5000 years of math, and recapitulates the basic processes that the species has gone through that imitate what the individual problem solver confronts. Unlike a lot of stuff you'll find, these books contain original writings of mathematicians and wonderful contextual interpretation by Newman. It's a masterpiece of work, and though it originally dates from the 1950's, it was recognized as worthwhile enough to merit Microsoft Press reprints in the late 1980s.

There are 133 papers in the series. Many very recent discoveries are omitted, of course, but when it comes to putting events and concepts in coherent places, I find it unparalleled, particularly for the informed (or wannabe) layman. Try to get the larger 1988 books , not the very recent prints, which are smaller, cheaper, and harder to read.

This series is also a good survey of the field, which long ago got too big for one word. If you want to be a good amateur, some specialization will have to be made.

In reality, if you want to just be a math 'expert', the fastest way there is to master algebra, geometry and trig used in common life, and you will quickly find you are at the top of the heap, relatively speaking. Remember, most of your country mates can't correctly identify the participants in World War 2, or tell you where to find Guatemala. Most of them think zero (0) was invented by god and that decimal notation was what the Greeks used. You are a shiny quarter in a field of horse poop for even wanting to know more about this stuff. Rejoice in you! Way cool.
posted by FauxScot at 9:01 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you live by a junior college? You could take a class, and that may help structure your study hobby. It sounds like knowing where to start is part of the problem.

As others have said, the Khan Academy videos are great. I took a calculus class last year for my MBA program. His stuff, and also patrickJMT's videos, were really helpful.
posted by tenaciousd at 9:07 AM on May 22, 2011

Seconding Khan Academy.

Also, look up Leonard Susskind's physics lectures on youtube. Plenty of advanced applied calculus, so you have an excuse to learn new things.
posted by empath at 9:35 AM on May 22, 2011

Oh, and try downloading PyGame and doing some 2-d physics simulations, as well -- like write a double pendulum simulator, or something similarly complex.
posted by empath at 9:39 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would recommend the podcast "A Brief History of Mathematics". It's not a bad 10 episode podcast.

I think that getting a basic understanding (Khan Academy etc.) is a great idea, this will allow you to read more about math. Reading the histories and stories of mathematics should shed some light into the ares you will like to know more about.

You could also look into "The Japanese Temple Problems", which vary quite a lot by difficulty, and give you an idea at how moving and profound many people have found mathematics. As a bonus the Sangaku are also a great cocktail conversation that most will find interesting.
posted by dr. moot at 10:12 AM on May 22, 2011

Maybe it's obvious, but one point to make is that you'll get teh maddest skillz not by reading books, but by working out problems, trying to find the answers to questions that you're curious about.

Books, TV, and web sites will point out interesting questions, but if you only read and watch you're limited to being a super-fan, and not a performer.

I'm not belittling this. When it comes to music, I'm just a super-fan -- I listen extensively, but don't play. It does limits me to a degree.

nth-ing Martin Gardner.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:13 AM on May 22, 2011

Oh, and if you have a high tolerance for whimsy (I have a vast capacity) I'll recommend two books. They're not necessarily part of the mainstream, but they introduce cool mathematical ideas without assuming any background.

Gödel, Escher, Bach (link) - big book, author fancies himself the next Lewis Carroll (who was a mathematician himself), but it explores all kinds of cool ideas of patterns, formal languages, logic, and recursion.

Winning Ways for Your Mathematical Plays (link) - Mind blower. Starts studying games, ends up re-inventing numbers. And the numbers they invent go beyond what we're used to thinking numbers are.

(Re-reading the initial question, I think you're looking more for some basic mathematical literacy. Admittedly these books don't fill that request. But they're so freaking cool!)
posted by benito.strauss at 10:31 AM on May 22, 2011

Hi everybody! I really appreciate all your answers, and I will be exploring every link (even if I'm not initially interested).

Raymond Smullyan?!? Holy krap. I read one of his logic books (mockingbird) when I was in hs...I loved that shit...but after a while, it went above my head. I'm pretty much a first half of the book guy when it comes to advanced math. I remember him, because he looks like Richard Gere with a beard.

Classes would be great, except I'm already doing something to take up my school brain. I want this to be self-taught...although the MIT courseware is some good shit I might take up...if I have the chops for that kind of math.

Yes, math is HUGE...and thats' part of the problem. I don't know discrete from linear. In fact, I don't really know what type of math that involves.
posted by hal_c_on at 5:31 PM on May 22, 2011

Oh yeah...and yes, I don't want to make this a "bookreading" hobby. I have full intentions to show all my work. I'm not trying to read through principia just so I can talk about it. In fact, I want to do this, because I don't really need human interaction to do this.

As for what math I'm interested in; again, I have no idea. I went through school did calc for science majors, did stats...and nothing else. I don't know where to go.
posted by hal_c_on at 5:35 PM on May 22, 2011

That's the reason Martin Gardner is for you. First off, it's basically a survey, wandering all over the place in the huge world of mathematics. Second, it's highly interactive. He isn't giving you a lecture, he's giving you things to do. Puzzles to solve, or games to play, or toys to create and mess around with. His very first article was about hexaflexagons, which are really easy to make and amazing to mess around with.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:16 PM on May 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

My friend Claudius Maximus makes some interesting toys that you might like.
posted by beshtya at 10:47 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

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