Can ya help me be geeker?
July 23, 2006 6:34 PM   Subscribe

Can you help me with my innumeracy?

Okay, innumeracy might be a bit of an overstatement. Here's the scoop. I'm very interested in mathematics but due to lack of real-world need I find that I don't know as much as I'd like to know from the world of math. Things I'd like to learn about are Algebra, Calculus, Number Systems, and how to think mathematically in general.

What do I hope to achieve with this new found mathematical thinking? I want to better understand some of the very questions posted here on AskMeFi. I want to read "Godel Escher Bach" with a better understanding and appreciation. I want to be able to increase the speed of the types of problems I can already resolve whther they are on paper or in my head. I want to have more fun with numbers.

I am in my mid-thirties and have had little mathematical need or education since highschool. I have no problems actually figuring things out but am submitting to the MeFi collective to give me a jump start. I currenty have little mathematical need, but this is rather about desire instead.

Please suggest books, websites, puzzlebooks or any other source that may help me better my own mathematical thinking.

The geek in me want to be geeker.
posted by horseblind to Education (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
My first suggestion would actually be to grab a used College Algebra text. The algebra part may bore the shit out of you, but pay attention to sequences'n'series, matrix stuff, and function composition.

Another outlet is Martin Gardner. He wrote a column in Scientific American called "mathematical games" for a shit-ton of years. (Incidentally, Douglas Hofstadter, who wrote GEB, took over the column from Gardner). There are collections of these Mathematical Games columns, as well as a series of books, obtensibly for kids but which I still find myself enjoying, called Aha! Gotcha and Aha! Insight.

(anyone who mentions Sudoku needs to be punched in the nuts.)
posted by notsnot at 6:44 PM on July 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Second the Martin Gardner. Look for math puzzles and logic problems also. Also, start using numbers in your written communication, as in, "I'm such a g33k! I 5p33k 1337!"
posted by Mr. Gunn at 6:49 PM on July 23, 2006

you may find this online algebra text useful. Also, please see my earlier AskMe question.
posted by grumblebee at 7:06 PM on July 23, 2006

And either Gardner or Hofstadter wrote a book on the topic, too. I was thinking of Metamagical Themas, but that's DH, and I think the book I think you would find useful was Gardner's.

[ checks ]

Actually, that was the title of the column by DH that replaced Gardner's (Gardner is 92, incidentally); check out the Wikipedia page on Gardner, which includes a bibliography; none of the book titles especially jumps out at me.
posted by baylink at 7:12 PM on July 23, 2006

I have been addressing my math shortcomings for 40 years, and have made a lot of progress in the last 10. It's a lifelong pursuit, FUN and profitable. I commend you on your desire to learn about this. It will set you apart from your cohort and lead to much good.

The biggest secret? It's not hard. It requires persistence and desire. With the profusion of on-line aids, software, sources, calculators, ad infinitum, there has never been a better time.

I recommend the four volume set, "The World of Mathematics", edited by John Newman.

You can find them on eBay and Amazon, if I haven't already bought them! (I buy them and give them to interested people. Email me if you can't locate one!) The best printing is NOT the newest... it's the 1988 Microsoft Press printing... large and white paperbacks.

This series was originally printed in 1954 or so... so it is missing a lot of stuff from the last 50 years, but it gets the first 3000 years pretty well.

It is 133 original papers, by such authors as Archimedes, Euclid, Newton, Galileo, Einstein, Russell, Whitehead, etc.

Allocate 2 to 3 years to read it. Just read it. If you are compelled, do some of the math, but mostly, just read the text. It will infuse you with the history and breadth of the subject, desensitize any fears you may have, make the evolution of the subject clearer, and expose you to things you might want to pursue further. (When I read it, I often go off on a brief reading tangent about something that strikes my fancy. Screws up my schedule, but informs me more.)

Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Don't fear your temporary ignorance... treat it as an asset.

Do 1 or 2 math problems a week. At the end of the year, you'll be a lot better than at the beginning.... pulling far ahead of the crowd.

Network with a physics, math, or CS major and develop an interest in something specific. (Mine is Fourier transforms.. how geeky!)

Email me if you get bored. (I am serious about the World of Math... absolutely wonderful series.)

Good luck!
posted by FauxScot at 7:19 PM on July 23, 2006 [3 favorites]

Mathematics: From the Birth of Numbers is both an invaluable reference and useful text.
posted by TedW at 7:19 PM on July 23, 2006

Mathematics is best learned by doing, so pick up a college algebra textbook and work through it. However, mathematics is best appreciated with a view to the context, consequences, origin, and motivations for the material you are learning, and it is precisely these things that most textbooks either lack or do a terrible job with.

For now: Mathematics From the Birth of Numbers should be bedside reading with your algebra and calculus courses.

Eventually: Mathematics, its Method, Content, and Meaning will give you a grasp of the breadth and scope of the field circa 1960, written by some of Russia's finest contributors to the field.

There have been other histories and popularizations written but these stand heads-and-shoulders above the rest for their depth and their respect for the reader's intelligence.
posted by little miss manners at 7:21 PM on July 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Concentrate on really understanding the concepts and where they came from and math gets a lot easier. If you try to "skip-ahead" you will no doubt end up frusterated at some point. By skipping ahead I mean something like just learning the shortcuts to finding derivatives in calculus instead of actually understanding what the derivative means.

I have looked at a lot of math textbooks and I really don't notice much difference between them. You can probably find plenty of textbooks at a local used book store for cheap. Take a look through those and if any single topic isn't explained well then do a search of google. Usually adding "tutorial" or "primer" at the end of any topic will get you a good ground-up explanation.
posted by Hypharse at 7:48 PM on July 23, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far; please keep them coming.

One important thing I forgot to mention here is that in addition to my interest in increasing my mathematics knowledge is that I already find fun in what I do know of mathematics and in trying to figure out what I don't. So, to a certain degree this is also an exercise in entertainment. There is no doubt that I am very smart and will be able to grasp whatever I lay my hands upon if only I will spend some time doing so. Also, FWIW, I do very much enjoy crosswords, logic puzzles and the like.
posted by horseblind at 7:59 PM on July 23, 2006

I really liked Fermat's Enigma by Simon Singh. It won't teach you how to do math but will give you a bit of history of math and expose you to some classic problems (e.g. Euler's bridges).
posted by kechi at 12:46 AM on July 24, 2006

That John Newman, I think, should be James Newman. Here's the Amazon link. I think I'll check it out myself. Good luck!
posted by alexei at 2:05 AM on July 24, 2006

Teach Yourself Mathematics is a book I used to fill in all the stuff I ignored in high school. It starts with the absolute basics and works up from there.
posted by tomble at 2:30 AM on July 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

I recommend the four volume set, "The World of Mathematics", edited by John Newman.

You can find them on eBay and Amazon, if I haven't already bought them! (I buy them and give them to interested people. Email me if you can't locate one!) The best printing is NOT the newest... it's the 1988 Microsoft Press printing... large and white paperbacks.

The ISBN for the 1988 edition that FauxScot reccomends is 1556151489. Helps narrow down Amazon, Alibris and other searches.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 8:33 AM on July 24, 2006

Remember, there are really only three kinds of people in the quantitative sciences: those who can count, and those who can't.
posted by Dave 9 at 10:45 AM on July 24, 2006

psst... at the World Ebook Fair link that was on the front page a while back, I found a link to this collection of mathematical puzzles and curiosities, inspired by Martin Gardner. It's a free download until August 4th, so you might as well give it a look.
posted by matematichica at 8:36 PM on July 24, 2006

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