Is it weird? Is it math?
February 27, 2012 5:12 PM   Subscribe

Recommend to me please your favorite "oddball" math topics and resources.

I took a "math for poets" class in college. It was a survey of off-the-beaten path math topics, like the Fibonacci sequence, that don't usually get covered in the US's march-towards-calculus approach that everyone gets exposed to in elementary and secondary school.

It made me realize what a narrow view of math I had my whole life.

I'd like to discover/rediscover this area again. What are your less-than-well-known math topics? I'd love to hear some book and website recommends as well.
posted by Vavuzi to Science & Nature (22 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
This was a cool book about fractals due to its depth. Have you ever played around with a program called Processing? It's a good way to play around with the concepts (or simply to play around).
posted by oceanjesse at 5:29 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Now I want to teach the math for poets class again!

Probability and statistics are underrepresented in the US K-12 math curriculum; you might like Struck by Lightning or The Drunkard's Walk. David Aldous (disclaimer: a colleague of mine) has a list of non-technical books about probability.

Mathematical puzzles are always fun; Martin Gardner's collected Mathematical Games columns from Scientific American are excellent for this and are basically the canonical source; they've been collected in a dozen or so books, which I'm having trouble finding a list of. Excellent in a different way are Douglas Hofstadter's collected Metamagical Themas columns; Hofstadter took over the space in the back of the magazine when Gardner stopped writing his column. On a related note, if you want your puzzles in podcast form you should listen to The Math Factor.
posted by madcaptenor at 5:49 PM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

A list of the fifteen books of Gardner columns is in his Wikipedia article.
posted by madcaptenor at 5:53 PM on February 27, 2012

Check out Vihart's Youtube channel. Lots of mindblowing and well-presented math stuff on there.
posted by zachawry at 5:56 PM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you're into puzzles and such, you might get a kick out of Gödel, who charted the limits of mathematical logic. If the logic train interests you, you could check out Wittgenstein, and some experimental fiction inspired by his ideas. David Foster Wallace wrote a really pretty good book about Cantor and the mathematical meaning of infinity that also offers a good perspective on why the mathematics profession eats so many of its children. Or maybe cool internet videos will help your math go down easier.
posted by deathpanels at 6:03 PM on February 27, 2012

Magic Squares
There are various mathematical games like Hackenbush or Nim.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:07 PM on February 27, 2012

Oh, and as far as mind-blowing yet accessible math facts go, Bayes' rule is right up there at the top of my list. Probability is a great source of mathematically obvious facts that humans are tragically doomed to misunderstand. We're just hardwired to suck at probability.
posted by deathpanels at 6:09 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are various mathematical games like Hackenbush or Nim.

I'm surprised nobody's written a book about combinatorial game theory for the proverbial "intelligent lay reader".
posted by madcaptenor at 6:24 PM on February 27, 2012

I liked Rudy Rucker's Infinity and the Mind for all the bigger than ∞. type of stuff.
posted by zengargoyle at 6:28 PM on February 27, 2012

A lot of Douglas Hofstadter's stuff - particularly Gödel Escher Bach and Metamagical Themas, which is a collection from the successor column (and an anagram of) Gardner's Mathematical Games column. Fun stuff.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:31 PM on February 27, 2012

Read anything written by John Allen Paulos!
posted by John Cohen at 6:48 PM on February 27, 2012

An MIT mathematician takes origami to another level.
posted by sammyo at 7:11 PM on February 27, 2012

There's a nice book on the connection between perspective drawing and art, called Viewpoints (written by a friend of mine). It's nice because the math is super-accessible (I used a version to teach a math for poets-type class myself) and they incorporate commentary from actual artists.

Besides, even if you're not particularly artistic, you can learn to make neat drawings of things in one-, two-, or even three-point perspective, simply by following the rules!
posted by leahwrenn at 7:22 PM on February 27, 2012

Math Fun Facts!

Godel Escher Bach is also recommended, and so is The Book of Numbers. Also, anything by Martin Gardner and most things by Bryan Hayes.
posted by pmb at 7:27 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thinking Strategically is a pretty good layperson's book about decision theory / game theory. I think I got more out of reading that book than what I got out of my actual game theory course.
posted by Wulfhere at 7:32 PM on February 27, 2012

I loved the textbook Mathematics, A Human Endeavor so much I bought a copy and worked though it myself, for fun. I now calculate temperature in cricket chirps per minute. (Accurate!)
posted by aint broke at 8:43 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

No one's mentioned Raymond Smullyan yet, so I will. His books of logic puzzles are interesting because they are actually working toward a result -- in the ones I've read, Godel's proof -- rather than being just pointless brainteasers. I particularly like To Mock a Mockingbird.
posted by eruonna at 10:45 PM on February 27, 2012

eruonna is referencing the book "The Lady or the Tiger?", if you're looking for the one that has a proof of Goedel's incompleteness theorem. It is set up as a "mathematical novel" in the sense that there is an investigator who needs to figure out the combination to a special lock, which will only open if you feed it a Goedel sentence or some such.

That book is absolutely amazing, and I guarantee if you work through the story, you will understand the proof of the incompleteness theorem.

I also really like Spiked Math if you want to be introduced to a wide range of mathematical topics. The exposition on those comics isn't always the best, but the author does a good job of presenting the big ideas about some pretty cool and interesting mathematical topics.
posted by King Bee at 5:05 AM on February 28, 2012

The Colossal Book of Mathematics by Martin Gardner is a really fun book that you can read bits of at a time. My favourite part so far has been hexaflexagons, which are little folded pieces of paper that Feynman and other cool people got obsessed with for a while.

I thought triangle numbers were really cool when I was younger. I learned about them from the Murderous Maths books (from the same people that do Horrible Histories).

Someone earlier linked to Vi Hart and she is indeed awesome and fun.
posted by teraspawn at 1:35 PM on February 28, 2012

I thought triangle numbers were really cool when I was younger.

I invented triangle numbers when I was little. Seriously. My father told me "there are square numbers" and arranged some pennies in a square; then I asked if there were triangle numbers, and he didn't know. And I arranged the pennies in a triangle. Then years later I read a book and it turned out they exist!
posted by madcaptenor at 4:06 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I invented triangle numbers when I was little. Seriously.

Dude, I had a similar revelation as a child. I called them "bowling numbers", because I went bowling for some kid's birthday, and thought about how bowling could be harder if there were more pins, and how the pins would have to be arranged. /derail
posted by King Bee at 4:08 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nature by the Numbers (Fib. sequence, log spiral, etc. video)
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:24 AM on October 12, 2012

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