Math book shows how numbers are functional — and fun


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It is something that we all encounter in one form or another every day, but math elicits a wide range of reactions and responses.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/12/2014 (2902 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It is something that we all encounter in one form or another every day, but math elicits a wide range of reactions and responses.

For some, memories of high school math classes are pure trauma. On the other hand, if you survived but wish those classes had been more fun, Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension may be worth your time.

Matt Parker is a former math teacher from Australia — or rather, “maths teacher,” since he lives outside North America. He’s now based in the U.K., and works as a standup comedian and “math communicator.” His most popular YouTube video teaches you how to cheat at a Rubik’s cube, while the second-most popular is a computer he designed and built using 10,000 dominoes.

Alexander F. Yuan / The associated press files

His new book is entertaining and funny, although it would be a poor choice as an actual math textbook, or even an informative refresher course. Parker jumps across what must be many years of high school and university math, covering the search for prime numbers, geometry in multiple dimensions (two, three and four), algorithms, knot theory, computation, data transfer, imaginary numbers and infinity (and, yes, beyond).

In each chapter, Parker explains a few concepts, quickly laying some ground work and then getting to the sensational stuff. In his own words, “for too long, maths has been synonymous with education; it should be about fun and exploration.”

Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension certainly can be a lot of fun. Reading through the book is — optionally — a hands-on experience. A pair of scissors, a pair of compasses (that’s one tool), a pencil, glue, a box of oranges and at least 100 dominoes are all required to read it properly.

You can use math to hang a picture badly, from two or three or more nails, wrapping the string just right so that the picture will fall if any one nail is removed. Why would anyone want to do that? There’s no practical reason, except that it’s a way to explore the power of math to achieve unexpected results.

This make-and-do approach is one thing that differentiates the book from other math books written for lay people. Another is its length (nearly 500 pages), while another is its volume of numbers.

Many math books that target commoners do so by limiting the amount of actual numbers, equations and tables. Things to Make and Do is not an esoteric graduate paper, but there are still some tough concepts to follow, new nomenclature with words such as “hexatetraflexagon” and numbers such as 2,305,843,008,139,952,128 (a “perfect” number, incidentally, equal to its own factors).

Doing math for fun, without regard for practicality, is a recurring theme of the book. Parker suggests that while our modern world is utterly dependant on math, many of the great mathematicians were motivated by the sheer thrill of solving puzzles and exploring new mathematical landscapes and geometries. Practical applications for their discoveries came later.

The most direct practical advice in the book comes in the calculation of an optimal dating algorithm: How many people should a person date before selecting a life partner? Mathematics has an answer. For what it’s worth, the answer is: the square root of the total number of people you could conceivably date in a lifetime. Apply this advice at your own risk.

Whether choosing a spouse, hanging a picture, tying a knot or scanning a barcode, math is everywhere. So, why not make it enjoyable?

Math communicators like Parker are out there, eager to help you explore and have some fun.

Paul Klassen is a Winnipeg engineer.

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Updated on Saturday, December 27, 2014 8:56 AM CST: Formatting.

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