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Review: The Big Questions: Mathematics

What motivates the study of mathematics? Pure Math and recreational Math may not seem to have any connection to our physical world (although they sometimes do) but much of what we study was once motivated by the need to solve some practical problem. The longer I serve in the role of Math communicator the more important I feel it to be to connect people, mathematicians and non-mathematicians alike, with the stories behind the concepts and calculations. Storytelling is a powerful way to help people to relate to the experience of being a mathematician and thinking like a mathematician. Plus, most of us love stories, if they're well told and if they contain intriguing elements. In The Big Questions: Mathematics, Tony Crilly tells 20 compelling stories of the development of mathematical ideas.

The second chapter, Where do numbers come from?, takes us back to the earliest counting methods, some 30,000 years ago. Crilly tells us about the tally sticks and notched bones that our ancestors used to count things. We learn about the Babylonians and Egyptians and their counting system based on the number 60, from which we get 60 seconds in a minute, 60 seconds in an hour, and 360 degrees in a circle. And, there's a nice yet simple exploration of the merit of a number system based on 60 -- think of how easily 60 divides into groups of equal number. The chapter on imaginary numbers not only gives a nice introduction to complex numbers, quaternions, octonions, and Clifford Algebras; it also (briefly) connects us to practical applications of complex analysis. More importantly, though, Crilly paints the picture of the people who pioneered the study of complex numbers. We can put ourselves in the shoes of these mathematical inventors and get a sense of their struggles and of their triumphs.

I like "The Big Questions: Mathematics." If you're looking for challenging Math problems to chew on this isn't the book for you. If you would enjoy a broad brush telling of 20 interesting stories then I'd encourage you to pull up a chair and get a copy of the book. The ideas are fantastic and Crilly's storytelling is superb.

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  1. Mathematics are always tough for those who don’t put their focus on understanding the questions. But your post may help students to encourage because you have cleared them.

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