## How do people read mathematics?

At first glance this might seem like a non-question. How do people read anything? All suitably educated people read at least somewhat fluently in their first language – why would reading mathematics be different?

At first glance this might seem like a non-question. How do people read anything? All suitably educated people read at least somewhat fluently in their first language – why would reading mathematics be different?

Why make New Year’s Resolutions you don’t want to keep? This year the Very Short Introductions team have decided to fill the gaps in their knowledge by picking a VSI to read in 2016. Which VSIs will you be reading in 2016? Let us know in the comment section below or via the Very Short Introductions Facebook page.

Why is the head of a drum usually shaped like a circle? How would it sound if it were shaped like a square instead? Or a triangle? If you closed your eyes and listened, could you tell the difference? The mathematics used to prove that “one can hear the corners of a drum” are founded on the study of two everyday phenomena: vibrations and heat conduction.

Is the human brain just a rag-bag of different tricks and stratagems, slowly accumulated over evolutionary time? For many years, I thought the answer to this question was most probably ‘yes’. The most tantalizing (but least developed) aspect of the emerging framework concerns the origins of conscious experience itself.

A recent meme circulating on the internet mocked a US government programme (ObamaCare) saying that its introduction cost $360 million when there were only 317 million people in the entire country. It then posed the rhetorical question: “Why not just give everyone a million dollars instead?”

The American Mathematical Society held on October 1903 its regular meeting in New York City. The program announced a talk by Frank Nelson Cole (1861-1921), with the unpretending title of ‘On the factorization of large numbers’. In due course, Cole approached the board and started to multiply the number 2 by itself, step after step and without saying a word, sixty seven times.

On 20 October 2015, the global mathematical community is celebrating World Statistics Day. In honour of this, we present here a reading list of OUP books and journal articles that have helped to advance the understanding of these mathematical concepts.

When I started my career as a medical statistician in September 1972, medical research was very different from now. In that month, the Lancet and the British Medical Journal published 61 research reports which used individual participant data, excluding case reports and animal studies. The median sample size was 36 people. In July 2010, I had another look.

Few elementary mathematical ideas arouse the kind of curiosity and astonishment among the uninitiated as does the idea of the “imaginary numbers”, an idea embodied in the somewhat mysterious number i. This symbol is used to denote the idea of , namely, a number that when multiplied by itself yields -1. How come?

Try googling ‘mathematical gem’. I just got 465,000 results. Quite a lot. Indeed, the metaphor of mathematical ideas as precious little gems is an old one, and it is well known to anyone with a zest for mathematics. A diamond is a little, fully transparent structure all of whose parts can be observed with awe from any angle.

A friend of mine picked an argument with me the other day about how people go on about the beauty of mathematics, but this is not only not obvious to non-mathematicians, it cannot be accessed by those outside the field. Unlike, for example, the modern art, which is also not always obvious, mathematical beauty is elusive to all but the mathematicians. Or so he said.

To start a conversation based on mathematics may seem to some to be one of the tasks inevitably converging towards the plot-line of Mission Impossible. Well, certainly there are more pressing things that would occupy people’s minds, concerning international politics, the future of Europe, and the future of the Middle East. What’s new?

What is the purpose of mathematics? Or, as many a pupil would ask the teacher on a daily basis: “When are we going to need this?” There is a considerably ruder version of a question posed by Billy Connolly on the internet, but let’s not go there.

Mathematics is used in increasingly sophisticated ways in modern society, explicitly by experts who develop applications and implicitly by the general public who use technological devices. As each of us is taught a broad curriculum in school and then focuses on particular specialisms in our adult life, it is useful to ask the question ‘what does it mean to make sense of mathematics?’.

The idea of six degrees of separation is now quite well known and posits the appealing idea that any two humans on earth are connected by a chain of at most six common acquaintances. In the movie world this idea has become known as the “Bacon number”; for example Elvis Presley has a Bacon number […]

As somebody who loves words and English literature, I have often been assumed to be a natural enemy of the mathematical mind. If we’re being honest, my days of calculus and the hypotenuse are behind me, but with those qualifications under my belt, I did learn that the worlds of words and numbers are not necessarily as separate as they seem. Quite a few expressions use numbers (sixes and sevens, six of one and half a dozen of the other, one of a kind, etc.) but a few are more closely related to mathematics than you’d expect.