A Wealth of Numbers: An Anthology of 500 Years of Popular Mathematics Writing

A Wealth of Numbers: An Anthology of 500 Years of Popular Mathematics Writing

A Wealth of Numbers: An Anthology of 500 Years of Popular Mathematics Writing

A Wealth of Numbers: An Anthology of 500 Years of Popular Mathematics Writing

Excerpt

How did ordinary people think about mathematics in the past? How did they write about it? How did they learn it and teach it? If—like me—you think those questions are fascinating, read on.

Mathematics has been written about and thought about in all kinds of different ways over the centuries, and, since the beginning of printing more than 500 years ago, whole genres of mathematical writing have appeared and, often, disappeared. This book brings together a taste of many of those kinds of writing. As a result, it’s more like a spice rack than a finished recipe—a rambling garden of delights rather than an orderly display of prize blooms.

That said, these hundred extracts do add up to something more than themselves: a history of mathematics which shows the subject through the eyes of the interested and the curious from the sixteenth century to the present. A history in which the changes that come are in the agendas of the writers and the interests of their readers: different mathematical audiences, different social contexts, different senses of the use of mathematics and the point of thinking about it.

So this is not a history of mathematical research or of new mathematics, not a story in which discoveries and innovations feature very largely or where the names of the writers are, often, ones you’ll have heard before (or ever hear again).

The eleven chapters take the story in different directions, looking at how mathematics was learned and taught, used at work and played with in spare time, reflected on, and laughed about. Some chapters (1, 3, 5, and 7) look at mathematics done for fun: games and puzzles, popularizations and histories. Others (Chapters 2, 4, 6, and 8) show it in the classroom and at work. Chapters 9 and 10 are more reflective, asking how mathematics should be learned and taught, and why. And we end in Chapter 11 with my own favorite: mathematics in fiction.

The only problem with putting together this book has been an embarrassment of riches; there is just so much writing about mathematics aimed . . .

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