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I'm a children's book writer and illustrator, and I want to to create a book for young readers that exposes the beauty of Mathematics. I recently read Paul Lockhart's essay "The Mathematician's Lament," and found that I, too, lament the uninspiring quality of my elementary math education.

I want to make a book that discredits the notion that math is merely a series of calculations, and inspires a sense of awe and genuine curiosity in young readers.

However, I myself am mathematically unsophisticated.

What was the first bit of mathematics that made you realize that math is beautiful?

For the purposes of this children's book, accessible answers would be appreciated.

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Nice question, but should probably be community wiki? –  mrf Mar 7 '13 at 7:02
For me Euclid's proof of the infinitude of primes was the first thing that made me realize the beauty of mathematics. –  Manjil P. Saikia Mar 7 '13 at 7:02
Wow. Just last night I had a fierce argument with one of the bartenders of my usual watering hole who is a mechanical engineering student. He insisted that he has a better idea than me of what is mathematics. I am so going to print him a copy of Lockhart's text. Thank you for that link! –  Asaf Karagila Mar 7 '13 at 7:59
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t think that mathematics was beautiful and fascinating. –  Brian M. Scott Mar 7 '13 at 15:06
Although I don't know if it's what you are looking for, try looking up "vihart" on youtube--Even if it's not helpful, I guarantee you will appreciate it. –  Bill K Mar 8 '13 at 2:57

134 Answers 134

As a child, I liked drawing.

When I realized that there was an easy way of telling whether it is possible to draw a given figure in a single stroke, I was intrigued.

I read this in a popular mathematics book and it can be easily explained to a child.

(if there is 0 or 2 intersection with odd degree, the figure can be drawn in a single stroke)

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I remember my own observation about Pythagorean triples. I already knew that $3^2+4^2=5^2$ and $5^2+12^2=13^2$, and realized that the same trick can be done starting with any odd number $n$, and the other two will be serial numbers that add up to $n^2$.

For example, starting with $n=7$, we get $24+25=7^2$, and finally $7^2+24^2=25^2$.

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I remember that when I was five, I made this reasoning "if I can write the digits $0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 \space$ then I will be able to write all the numbers".

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For reasonable values of all. –  Chris Cudmore Aug 9 '13 at 14:31

I didn't so much discover mathematics was beautiful as I discovered everything I found beautiful was mathematics. I would have said the dodecahedron was my favorite elementary shape when I was little, but as a teenager I was exposed to the fourth dimension. I became obsessed with symmetry and analogy-based objects, and with the Johnson solids, which gave me a then-ineffable feeling of filling out the quality of symmetry that it always creates good shapes, that there are rules you can make that name exactly the set of good shapes. That "looks right" and "looks wrong" can be made precise, and hence the feeling can be explained, you can learn what it is you're noticing about those shapes that you wouldn't feel when you look at a 3D mesh of a face or a blanket.

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In my school when I learned about Cartesian coordinate system was shocking! Because that was the time I learned that was possible to make drawings with numbers.

Unlike most people here, I didn't have so much fun playing with numbers, but everything changed when I realized that I could convert numbers (more precisely, ordered pairs) in drawings over the coordinate plane.

And YES, that was a lot of fun.

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If I wrote a book, a few pages would be dedicated to visualizing square root through blocks like this:

square root blocks

A kid can put cards on a table and count the edge rectangles to figure out the approximate square root of any number. With the help of some legos you can even teach cube root!

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I remember reading a magazine when I was a kid that asked this question. If you have 6 pieces of spaghetti that extend as long as you please, and you cross them so that they create as many overlaps as 6 sticks allow. How many cross points do you have. Then it asked how many would it be for 17 spaghetti sticks, could you figure it out for any number of spaghetti?

And I remember concluding that $\frac {n(n-1)}2$ is the formula for finding the answer. I was excited at the time. Looking back now I see how elementary that was.

Here is a visual way to see it: enter image description here

So, I started by drawing out a strand of spaghetti assuming that they could be as long as you please and as thin as you please, then I start with one and work my way up to 5 counting how many times they cross.

enter image description here

So then for 5 sticks of spaghetti I labeled all of the crossings. I did this for 6 as well just to see what was happening. I noticed that the number of crossings on each strand of spaghetti was the number of total spaghetti - 1 because it didn't cross itself. So from now on I will refer to the number of spaghetti as n. So to count the number of crossing I knew it was $n-1$ crossings for every stick and $n$ sticks so the total number of crossings was $(n-1)n$ and I noticed that each crossing occurs on two separate sticks, because one crossing is the crossing of two sticks to the total number of crossings is half of the number in the diagram so it was $\frac 12 (n-1)n = \frac {n^2-n}2$

P.S. sorry for using the words crossing and sticks instead of points and lines. It was something that stuck because of the spaghetti analogy in my head. I didn't realize I was doing it until it was too late.

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Another different but related question is how many pieces of a round pie can you cut using $n$ straight cuts. The answer turns out to be $\displaystyle \frac{n(n+1)}{2} + 1$. –  Joe Z. Mar 13 '13 at 20:27

The possibilities of abstraction. This liberated me. Until I was about 13, I always had trouble with solving problems involving proportionality and inverse proportionality. Until I learned about variables. When I realized that you could just put a symbol instead of the number you don't know and just perform computations with it until everything simplifies in a way you can find back the number, I had a feeling of unstoppability.

The power of abstraction is so great that I'm very saddened by our current educational system in which it has nearly disappeared. All the students I get are struggling with symbols there were I have always seen them as my friends.

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It's not the first one that made me love math (what made me love math isn't math itself at all, but rather someone pointing out to me that I was pretty good at math -- and then I proceeded to like math haha), but this is the most amazing discovery I made when I was 15.

$$ Pr(X = r) = \frac{(nCr)(x-1)^{n-r}}{x^{n}} $$

Which is really just a restatement of the binomial distribution:

$$ Pr(X = r) = (nCr)(p^{r})(p^{n-r}) $$

where $p = 1/x$, so it works only makes sense for integer values. For example, the chances of choosing one blue jar out of 10 differently colored ones would be $x=10$, but also $p=0.1$.

I discovered it after one week of exhaustively listing down all the permutations of the letters n, t, g, and b and figuring out what patterns they looked like when you took only 1, 2, 3, and 4 elements. Then I went ahead and added more and more letters until I arrived at that formula by inspection.

In my opinion, it isn't the math itself that makes kids dislike math. It's all the people around them who dislike math who make kids dislike math.

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Pythagorean theorem

If $(a, b, c)$ is a Pythagorean triple, then so is $(ka, kb, kc)$ for any positive integer $k$.

$3^2 + 4^2 = 5^2$

Pythagorean triples

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If you've ever heard of $3,529,411,764,705,882$ being multiplied by $3/2$ to give $5,294,117,647,058,823$ (which is the same as the 3 being shifted to the back), you might consider including that in the book.

There are lots of other examples, like $285,714$ turning into $428,571$ (moving the 4 from back to front) when multiplied by $3/2$, or the front digit of $842,105,263,157,894,736$ moving to the back four times in a row when you divide it by $2$. (There's a leading zero in front of the last term, though.)

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Or without some good ol' pencil and paper. –  Joe Z. Mar 7 '13 at 15:51
Here's the trick: Take the decimal expansion of 1/(any prime number). That will give you lots of ratios to work with. –  Joe Z. Mar 7 '13 at 15:54
  • Like Trevor Wilson, I was awed by human ingenuity where just by looking at "few" given numbers, one can deduce that there are infinitely many primes from reason alone and doing basic operations. (Here is more on Euclid's proof.)

  • As freshman undergrad in college, always loved Theoni Pappas' Joy of Mathematics before being introduced to Raymond Smullyan, Charles Seife (Biography of Zero), Rudy Rucker and Hoftstadter's books.

  • As far as Math.SE's question is concerned, this was an interesting brain teaser and simplicity at best.

===================EDITED THE FOLLOWING BELOW==================== I just realized although the above have been influential, but earliest memory of the workings of mathematics came in the manner of following magic trick aged six or seven:

Effect: Performer asks someone to write down a random long number 4567829872367783456753745673456347567346534756 and he writes the another line of the matching digit, so let's say she writes 1263347567346534756378567563434543534543534545 and after that performer asks another audience member to approach the blackboard on dimly lit stage. Let's say the next random line 8636652432653465243621432436565456465456465454 and random number and as he writes 5555555555555555555555555555555555555999999990 the performer quickly writes below 4444444444444444444444444444444444444000000009 and then pauses. Then he continues his patter: Now I could not have possibly known what digits you would have chosen, right ladies and gentlemen? Well, let me gather my thoughts for a while and clear my mind....as I attempt to add this rather cumbersome mess in just the time of writing it down. Then he approaches the blackboard and without hesitation calculates the answer:


which of course proves to be correct.

Method: There is of course no telepathy and the trick is entirely mathematical in nature. If the reader wants the audience to choose the first line make sure the last digit does not end in 0 or 1. So what the practitioner would do is matching the digits of audience write the complement of the number adding to 9. Say the line is of a 10-digit sequence of 5s then the performer should write a 10-digit sequence of 4s. To add the whole block one simply copies down the first line with 2 in front of it and subtracting 2 from the last digit. Hence the need for no 0 or 1 in the first line.

Tips: To make it realistic, make sure it is a cumbersome mess that is not too big of a block. Because say one smart aleck chooses all digits of 0000... and then when performer writes 999999... it may be a give away. Strike a balance between how big the mammoth block should be to appeal awe from students and the reality of randomness in the numbers. The rest is, of course, all up to the showmanship of mentalist.

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+1 for the first bullet point! I had the same enthralling reaction to the Euclid's proof that there are infinitely many primes. It was the first time in my life that I realized there was more to mathematics than mindless calculation, and it fundamentally changed the course of my life. –  user5501 Mar 7 '13 at 9:58

I found a book by Isaac Asimov called "Asimov On Numbers" which is a compilation of his essays related to math and numbers. It was all very fascinating - things like why Roman Numerals are inefficient, why Zero was such a groundbreaking number to invent, things like that. You might want to see if you can find that book to get some inspiration.

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Mine was the discovery of sets in higher order math classes, and how all the lower math classes including Physics theories were strictly derived from higher order calculus, and all of the formulas I had ever learned became such simple child's toys.

I don't think those belong in a children's text, however.

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When you realize that taking derivatives is so simple, you look back and realize, "I can't believe people use this as an example of difficult mathematics!" –  Joe Z. Mar 13 '13 at 20:25
I had a similar moment of realization for reducing polynomials, back in middle school when my Sunday School teacher used a really long rational polynomial expression as an example of a "problem that's too hard for you to solve" (it was part of a teaching package). She had to resort to using trigonometry and asking me how I would calculate $\tan 35^\circ$, which I didn't know at the time. The polynomial ended up being something contrived, but it did actually reduce quite a bit. –  Joe Z. Mar 13 '13 at 20:32
Of course, now when I look back at it, I think, that wasn't actually hard! –  Joe Z. Mar 14 '13 at 14:20

$$\sqrt{\sqrt{\dotsb\sqrt{x}}} = 1$$

(or its more precise version: $lim_{n \rightarrow \infty} \sqrt[n]{x}$, for x positive)

As a kid I would always type in a number in my calculator and then keep hitting the square root key until the display went to 1. I would also do this with other keys on the calculator to see what would happen (some would blow up past the capacity of the floating point storage and some would go to 0, some to 1).

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Actually $\sqrt[n]{x}\to 1$, as $n\to\infty$. –  Asaf Karagila Mar 8 '13 at 21:15

When I was still pretty young (I don't remember my exact age) I was very proud that I could already compute with decimal fractions which nobody I knew in my age could at the time. Around that time my aunt had a student for a visit in her home, and he talked to me about math, and asked me to compute $1/3+2/3$. I asked to how many digits and he said as many as you like. So, I sat down and computed it to 10 digits or something: \begin{align} 0.3333333333\\ \underline{+0.6666666666}\\ 0.9999999999 \end{align} Proudly, I presented my result. He said well done, but it's way easier \begin{align} \frac13+ \frac23= \frac{1+2}3= \frac{3}3=1. \end{align} The beauty in this impressed me a lot and kind of got me started in math.

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When I was 10, I read a math booklet, that talked about Euler characteristic. There were drawings of all Plato's polyhedrons, and I counted, and realize that their Euler characteristic was always 2. I was amazed, asked my mom, math teacher, if she knew anything about it, and she told me she didn't. Now I'm 21, and I am just starting to be math-mature enough to understand this theorem. Maths are beautiful :D !

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For me it was when I realized that with sine and cosine I could draw a circle!

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And then experimenting with those functions to draw cool parametric shapes on the calculator ^^ –  Thomas Mar 8 '13 at 3:32

When I was a kid I realized that $$0^2 + 1\ (\text{the first odd number}) = 1^2$$ $$1^2 + 3\ (\text{the second odd number}) = 2^2$$ $$2^2 + 5\ (\text{the third odd number}) = 3^2$$ and so on...

I checked it for A LOT of numbers :D

Years passed before someone taught me the basics of multiplication of polynomial and hence that $$(x + 1)^2 = x^2 + 2x + 1.$$ I know that this may sound stupid, but I was very young, and I had a great time filling pages with numbers to check my conjecture!!!

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The fact that $\Bbb C$ is algebraically closed.

About 12 years old, after I just learned about quadratic equation such as $x^2=a$ may or may not have solutions, my mother told me about complex numbers: you attach the number $i=\sqrt{-1}$ to real numbers and after that $x^2=-1$ have solutions.

"Nah", I said, "that doesn't help much: although you now have solutions for $x^2=a$ for $a$ in the old number system, which are reals, you still don't have solutions of $x^2=a$ in the new number system, which are complex. You still don't have a solution of $x^2=i$, for example. And having complex solutions for some of the complex numbers is no better than having real solutions for some of the real numbers."

Then she showed me the roots of $x^2=i$ and explained that $x^2=a$ has complex solutions for any complex $a$. The ingenuity of the complex numbers impressed me a lot.

Then she told me about polynomials of degree higher than 2 and that they all have roots in the same field of complex numbers, that you don't need to "attach" $n^{th}$ root of $-1$ or any other number in order to have any polynomial of degree $n$ have roots, that $\sqrt{-1}$ is sufficient for them all. And I was impressed even further.

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These amazed me quite a lot when i first saw them:

$1.$ Prove that $|(a,b)| =|\Bbb R|$, $\forall a,b\in\Bbb R$ and $a<b$.

$2.$ Both $\Bbb Q$ and $\Bbb R\setminus \Bbb Q$ are dense in $\Bbb R$, but $\Bbb Q$ is countable set while $\Bbb R\setminus \Bbb Q$ is uncountable.

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At what age?${}$ –  mrf Mar 7 '13 at 7:42
My brother used to tell me these kind of things from an early age. –  Aang Mar 7 '13 at 11:15
You learned about dense, countable and uncountable sets at that age?? Its hard to believe...and its very strange that you have to get so far to see something you considered beautiful. –  Integral Mar 7 '13 at 15:23

I remember in geometry using direct reasoning once and another by the absurd, I manage to show that lines are parallel, intersecting at a point, a triangle is isosceles, it is inscribed in a circle ..... I was fascinated by geometry.

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I think the first think that amazed me in this way is $\pi$. An irrationnal number, which means it has an infinite number of digits, which involves humans can't manage it, we can't know it on the whole, but already Greeks discovered it, they knew it has something to do in the circumference or the area of a circle, i.e. they could manipulate it, and I find this unbelievable.

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To me, it was probably an old animated book "Och ta geometria" (eng. "Oh that geometry") written and illustrated by Zlatko Šporer, Nedejko Dragić. In the form of funny comix (check the link for samples), this book introduces basics of geometry from points, segments (not sure if this is the correct name), lines, flat figures and their area to cartesian coordinate system. This was probably the catalyst for my interest in math.

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My mother repeatedly tells this story about me.

In German television there is a series called Telekolleg (not Kellog you silly, more like in college ) which is broadcated for remote learning. One series deals with Math.

I was about 5 or 6 years old, when I sat in front of the TV watching this Telekolleg Mathematik series, turning to my mother and insisting: 'This is a good programme, you have to watch this'.

Don't remember what the exact topic was, perhaps quadratic function graphs.

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The first interesting Maths problem I remember in my limited memory is 1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 + ..... never totals to TWO :-)

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Sounds like Zeno's Dichotomy paradox. –  BobStein-VisiBone Mar 7 '13 at 15:28

This was probably the very first mathematic riddle which absolutely got me. It is called Algebrogram in my language, but I couldn't find a reference in english.
I was attending mathematic group after normal school (at age 11-14) and then I made few of my own for my classmates. I loved it ^^

You use characters instead of numbers and you construct some words. You then let others solve it.

    T E N
    T E N


2 9 7 8 6
    8 5 0
    8 5 0
3 1 4 8 6

It was common to construct sentences as well, but it is kinda hard. This is only example, which is unsolvable ;)
You could specify if there were some other operations or you could let your solvers find it out by themselves.

        O U R
    H O U S E
        H A S
      - T E N
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In English these are sometimes known as cryptarithmetic puzzles. –  Will Mar 7 '13 at 16:41

I'm not sure there was a first bit; realizing the beauty of mathematics was a gradual process for me, turning it from a fun little thing I was doing into a full-fledged appreciation.

One of the more recent things, I suppose, is some of the patterns that appear in modular arithmetic. The concepts of continued fractions and aliasing in signal processing are closely related. When continuously adding 9 to a number, the ones digit appears to decrease by 1 constantly. If you mark all the multiples of 3 on a 10-by-10 grid, they form diagonal stripes down the page. Things like that, which actually have quite significant uses in real life, are things that make math beautiful (and tricky!) to me.

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I was pretty good at math from an early age, but what was the clincher for me was the existence of non-euclidean geometry. In grade 6 my math prof gave me a book on axiomatic Euclidean geometry and I was totally blown away that the parallel postulate was just that, a postulate, and not an undisputable true fact. If upmto that point I just considered (school) math easy, from that moment I realized is incredibly beautiful. I did not look back since.

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I was completely baffled when I learned the approach of C.F. Gauß for summing 1+2+3+...+100. Of course I would have gone for the hard way as well and I was deeply impressed when I learned that this equates to 1+100 + 2+99 + 3+98 + ... = 50*101 = 5050.

The next big thing for me was when I discovered that you can reduce multiplication to looking up squares by the identity

a*b = ((a+b)(a+b)-(a-b)(a-b))/4

However by that time I was already hooked.

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