The lack of support given to recreational maths is a real puzzle
That’s Maths: Many people derive great joy from recreational maths – and it is a very effective way to get children interested in the subject
For decades, Martin Gardner tried to convince educators that recreational mathematics should be included in the curriculum to draw in young students. Photograph: iStock
We can all enjoy the elegance of brilliant logical arguments and appreciate the beauty of mathematical structures and symmetries without being skilled creators of new theorems.
Many people derive great joy and fulfilment from recreational maths. A wide range of mathematics beyond the school curriculum is accessible if presented in an expository manner. Recreational maths puts the focus on insight, imagination and beauty. Some fields of mathematics strongly linked to recreational maths have advanced through the activities of amateurs. These include probability, number theory, graph theory and combinatorics. Recreational mathematics can be serious and scientifically important.
Martin Gardner, a late, great populariser of maths, introduced millions of people to the wonder, variety and sheer fun of the subject. He was described as having turned thousands of children into mathematicians and thousands of mathematicians into children. For decades, Gardner tried to convince educators that recreational mathematics should be included in the standard curriculum, to interest young students in the wonders of maths. Sadly, he reported that “movement in that direction has been glacial”.
Many professional mathematicians say that their love of the subject was sparked by reading popular articles such as those that Gardner wrote, by battling with tricky problems or by solving puzzles, which can be a gateway to a rich world of maths.
A browse in any good bookshop will reveal a rich variety of books on popular maths. There is a wealth of literature suitable for a general audience. There are several free online magazines to help people of all ages to share in the excitement of mathematics and understand its importance in science and commerce. Among the best of these is Plus (plus.maths.org). This magazine includes news stories, puzzles, reviews of popular maths books and a regular interview with a professional mathematician. All past content is available online.
There are national and international conferences devoted to recreational maths. Notable among these are the Moves (Mathematics of Various Entertaining Subjects) conferences, organised by MoMath (momath.org), the Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan. MoMath aims to enhance public understanding of the creative, social and aesthetic aspects of the subject through exhibitions and programmes that are entertaining, stimulate curiosity and reveal the wonders of mathematics. The third Moves conference takes place in August next year.
Closer to home, a new mathematics gallery – the David and Claudia Harding Gallery – will open later this year at the Science Museum in Kensington. The design of the gallery is inspired by images of turbulent flow around an aircraft, which is described mathematically by the Navier-Stokes equations.
The exhibits at the gallery will span hundreds of years of ingenuity in mathematics, and aim to show young people that maths can be fun. It will open on December 8th.
Finally, an evening course, Awe-Sums: the Majesty of Maths, will be taught in UCD this autumn by me. Registration is open online at ucd.ie/adulted or on 01-7167123.