Thursday, June 12, 2008

Review of Letters to a Young Mathematician by Ian Stewart

'Review of Letters to a Young Mathematician' by Ian Stewart is a book which explains why a sixth former should study mathematics at undergraduate. Additionally it is an excellent book to motivate undergraduates to study mathematics at postgraduate level.
However the book contains no or very little mathematics so it is digestible for the general layman. I would have preferred more mathematics in the book because this letter approach could have been a novel way to put over some mathematical concepts.
All the 21 letters start with 'Dear Meg' who is the niece of a factitious mathematician writing the letters. It is set up with a question from Meg (you do not see the question) and the reply from the mathematician. The life span of the letters is about 15 to 20 years starting with the explanation of why Meg should read mathematics at university and ending with benefits of tenure and collaboration. Although the title of the last chapter ‘Is God a Mathematician’ brings in historical quotes such as ‘God is a geometer’ by Plato, ‘God is a mathematician’ by Paul Dirac and ‘God is a Pure Mathematician’ by Arthur Eddington. The book becomes a fantastic collection of letters into the life of a mathematician.
Stewart has quotes sprinkled in his book from the classic ‘A Mathematicians Apology’ by G Hardy. It seems like the book being reviewed is a supplement to the 20th Century Hardy’s classic. Whilst Hardy glorified in his non-applications of mathematics, Stewart shows why mathematics is universal used throughout our lives. He does not make a major distinction between pure and applied mathematics.
Humour is sprinkled throughout the text such as the Dean of a Faculty counting the number of lights in the ceiling of an auditorium. When the mathematician points out that there is no point counting them because there are 8 rows by 12 columns of lights so making it 96 altogether the Dean replies ‘I want the exact number’.
This is an excellent book and definitely worth buying.