In fact, his alienation runs a lot deeper. He’s not sure what mathematicians do all day, or what they mean when they say a proof is elegant. Sometimes we joke that I should just sit him down and teach him everything, starting with 1 + 1 = 2 and going as far as we can.
Crazy as it sounds, that’s what I’ll be trying to do in this book. It’s a guided tour through the elements of math, from preschool to grad school, for anyone out there who’d like to have a second chance at the subject—but this time from an adult perspective. It’s not intended to be remedial. The goal is to give you a better feeling for what math is all about and why it’s so enthralling to those who get it.
We’ll discover how Michael Jordan’s dunks can help explain the fundamentals of calculus. I’ll show you a simple — and mind-blowing — way to understand that staple of geometry, the Pythagorean theorem. We’ll try to get to the bottom of some of life’s mysteries, big and small: Did O.J. do it? How should you flip your mattress to get the maximum wear out of it? How many people should you date before settling down? And we’ll see why some infinities are bigger than others.
Math is everywhere, if you know where to look. We’ll spot sine waves in zebra stripes, hear echoes of Euclid in the Declaration of Independence, and recognize signs of negative numbers in the run-up to World War I. And we’ll see how our lives today are being touched by new kinds of math, as we search for restaurants online and try to understand — not to mention survive — the frightening swings in the stock market.
By a coincidence that seems only fitting for a book about numbers, this one was born on the day I turned fifty. David Shipley, who was then the editor of the op-ed page for the New York Times, had invited me to lunch on the big day (unaware of its semicentennial significance) and asked if I would ever consider writing a series about math for his readers. I loved the thought of sharing the pleasures of math with an audience beyond my inquisitive artist friend.
“The Elements of Math” appeared online in late January 2010 and ran for fifteen weeks. In response, letters and comments poured in from readers of all ages. Many who wrote were students and teachers. Others were curious people who, for whatever reason, had fallen off the track somewhere in their math education but sensed they were missing something worthwhile and wanted to try again. Especially gratifying were the notes I received from parents thanking me for helping them explain math to their kids and, in the process, to themselves. Even my colleagues and fellow math aficionados seemed to enjoy the pieces — when they weren’t suggesting improvements (or perhaps especially then!).
All in all, the experience convinced me that there’s a profound but little-recognized hunger for math among the general public. Despite everything we hear about math phobia, many people want to understand the subject a little better. And once they do, they find it addictive.