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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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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
I think it's a shame that this question was voted closed... –  Will Mar 10 '13 at 19:50

141 Answers 141

If you're writing a children's book on mathematics, please start by reading some excellent children's books dealing with mathematics. Here are some books I have fond memories of:

  • The Man Who Counted
  • The Phantom Tollbooth
  • Flatland
  • Alice in Wonderland / Through the Looking Glass
  • Everything by Martin Gardner
  • Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Thread
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I think one of my early favourite mathematical things was simply "proof by contradiction" -- any of them.

I think its appeal is that you nearly have proof by example, except that you're proving a negative.

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When I was a kid, I remember that I used to make 'little discoveries', although after I got all excited I realised other people already knew this and I didn't discover anything new, I was always really proud when I made one of those discoveries, Here are a few that I made and approximately how old I was when I did make the discovery (just saying I am 13 years old right now).

  • An odd number plus an odd number is even, an even number plus an even number is even, and odd plus even is odd (approximately age 4-5)
  • The rule for the Fibonacci sequence (I remember I saw it on the board or something in my classroom and then I just found the pattern) (age 6, I remember this one accurately bc it was during the first year of my primary education)
  • If you rip a piece of paper in half, and then both in half again, and again etc, the number of pieces of paper you have when you ripped it $n$ times is $2^n$ (age 10)
  • The fact that you can split a triangle into two right triangles and apply trig ratios to them (I later learned the Sine and Cosine Laws so yeah) (age 11)
  • I was learning differential calculus, and I didn't know integral calculus yet. My dad told me that a integral is the inverse of the derivative, Then I figured out the rule that offsets the power rule and I figured out that the integral of nothing is an arbitrary constant (When i officially learnt integral calculus I found the proper formulas and I was just using the wrong symbols) (age 12)
  • I proved to myself that the cardinality of the set of Reals and the set of Complex numbers are the same (age 13)
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I started math reasonably late, so I'm not sure this is a perfect example for a children book. I was totally amazed that the number $\pi$ is encountered in completely unrelated situation. Of course, I knew it's a ratio of circumference of the circle to the diameter, but then I learnt of the Normal probability density function.

So if you stretch a bell-shaped curve (Gaussian function) from $-\infty$ to $\infty$ the area under it $converges$ to $\sqrt{\pi}$?? How is it possible that this area has something to do with the square root of the ratio of circumference of the circle to the diameter? To be honest, even now, after learning the related proofs and derivations I still find it quite baffling.

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For me, it was the beauty of the number 1, how it can be multiplied with anything , and it won't change the number it is being multiplied with, also how it can be represented as any number divided by itself such as 4/4=1 I would also love to share this beautiful poem by Dave Feinberg that is titled "the square root of 3" and was also featured in a Harold and Kumar Movie, it renewed my love for math and is and always has been one of my favorite poems! :

I’m sure that I will always be A lonely number like root three

The three is all that’s good and right, Why must my three keep out of sight Beneath the vicious square root sign, I wish instead I were a nine

For nine could thwart this evil trick, with just some quick arithmetic

I know I’ll never see the sun, as 1.7321 Such is my reality, a sad irrationality

When hark! What is this I see, Another square root of a three

As quietly co-waltzing by, Together now we multiply To form a number we prefer, Rejoicing as an integer

We break free from our mortal bonds With the wave of magic wands

Our square root signs become unglued Your love for me has been renewed

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I have to admit that although I'd frequently been told that mathematics was "beautiful", I didn't really get that while I was in school - even high school. I enjoyed mathematics, and saw plenty of things that were fun, and even cute, but I never really understood any ideas with sufficient depth to think of them as beautiful.

When I did encounter ideas that I found beautiful, it was in my first year at college. In fact, there were two closely related ideas in quick succession. We were just being introduced to vector spaces. This was the first time I'd seen an abstract space, but it didn't really seem to mean much except as a fancy way to talk about high dimensional Euclidean spaces.

But then I saw my first example of a vector space that didn't just look like the vectors I'd seen in high school. It was the space of infinitely differentiable functions: $C^{\infty}$. We were shown the linear operators associated with two common differential equations (exponential growth and simple harmonic motion): \begin{eqnarray} &\frac{\textrm{d}\phantom{y}}{\textrm{d}t} - kI \\ &\frac{\textrm{d}^{2}\phantom{y}}{\textrm{dt}^2} + kI. \end{eqnarray} We saw the fairly routine proofs that these were linear operators on $C^{\infty}$, but then came the magical part: The solution sets to these differential equations were subspaces of $C^{\infty}$, the canonical solutions I was familiar with were basis sets for these solution spaces, and the solution spaces were actually the nullspaces of these operators!

Later (maybe even in that same lecture) we saw how linear regression - the hitherto tedious process of finding the "line of best fit" - could be understood as a linear projection $P$ operator onto a two dimensional subspace of the data space. Given a data vector $\mathbf{x}$, the projected vector $P\mathbf{x}$ represented the line that was closest to the data - the line of best fit - and the difference term $\mathbf{x}-P\mathbf{x}$ represented the error term. I was astonished at how much more elegant this was than the clunky formulas I'd had to memorize in high school.

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Not an experience of mine, but I'm currently reading The Greeks by H. D. F. Kitto and I think this page deserves to be here:

But let us not be too superior to those Greeks who "shut their eyes." They kept something else wide open, namely their minds, and although the eye-shutting retarded the growth of science, the mind-opening led to things perhaps equally important, metaphysics and mathematics.

Mathematics are perhaps the most characteristic of all the Greek discoveries, and the one that excited them most. We shall be more understanding of those who shut their eyes to facts if first of all we keep in mind the Greek conviction that the Universe is a logical whole, and therefore simple (despite appearances) and probably symmetrical, and then try to imagine the impact of their minds on elementary mathematics.

It happens that I myself—if I may be personal for a moment—was enabled to do this by an insomnia-beguiling piece of mathematical research that I once did myself. (Mathematical readers are permitted to smile.) It occurred to me to wonder what was the difference between the square of a number and the product of its next-door neighbors. $10 \times 10$ proved to be $100$, and $11 \times 9 = 99$—one less. It was interesting to find that the difference between $6 \times 6$ and $7 \times 5$ was just the same, and with growing excitement I discovered, and algebraically proved, the law that this product must always be one less than the square. The next step was to consider the behavior of next-door neighbors but one, and it was with great delight that I disclosed to myself a whole system of numerical behavior of which my mathematical teachers had left me (I am glad to say) in complete ignorance. With increasing wonder I worked out the series to $10 \times 10 = 100$; $9 \times 11 = 99$; $8 \times 12 = 96$; $7 \times 13 = 91$… and found that the differences were, successively, $1, 3, 5, 7, \ldots$, the odd-number series. Even more marvelous was the discovery that if each successive product is subtracted from the original $100$, there is produced the series $1, 4, 9, 16, \ldots$. They had never told me, and I had never suspected, that Numbers play these grave and beautiful games with each other, from everlasting to everlasting, independently (apparently) of time, space, and the human mind. It was an impressive peep into a new and perfect universe.

(original source image)

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Maybe the fact that the homotopy category of a model category is equivalent to the full subcategory of fibrant-cofibrant objects with homotopy classes of morphisms.

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Congratulations for finding that out as a child. –  azimut Jun 21 at 13:26
Dry humor? (Hope so.) –  Did Aug 21 at 10:10

The $\sqrt{-1}$, complex analysis, and how real world problems could be solved "by these objects which don't exist."

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One of my most memorable moments in mathematics was when I was attempting to prove the formula for the volume of a sphere on my own. I hadn't been taught calculus yet and had no idea about it, but I was convinced I could solve the problem. I used an infinite amount of small disks and added their volume ( essentially the limit of a riemann sum, an integral, but I didn' know that at the time) I made the disks a certain height, worked out the sum using sums of consecutive squares and then made the height equal zero. And voila, I got the right volume! Later I found out I had re-discovered a part of calculus. The realisation that different people can independently discover mathematical truths and techniques was beautiful to me.

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At about 10 or 11 I discovered that the area of a circle was half the circumference multiplied by the radius.

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As others have mentioned, kids love $\pi$. Prime numbers are also good, if they have a good handle on division. I think the fundamental theorem of arithmetic is intuitively true once you understand it (at east it was to me).

It would be great to mention some unsolved problems, like the twin prime conjecture or the Collatz conjecture.

For me, one thing that I remember being fascinated about at an early age was the fact that multiplication is commutative. That $3+3+3+3+3=5+5+5$ (or if you want, five baskets with three apples each is the same as three baskets with five apples each) was not immediately obvious to me, and the fact that it worked for any two numbers amazed me. Once you understand the geometric "square of dots" proof it makes sense, but I think that before that it doesn't.

Knuth up arrow notation is worth mentioning. Kids love that multiplication is repeated addition and that powers are repeated multiplication, and would be interested to see that idea taken further.

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The most wonderful thing I've recently seen is this (sorry it's in French) form of the sieve of Eratosthenes and of course your question too.

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I was always good at maths as a child, and took to reading extension maths books for fun (other kids thought I was weird). When I was about 10 I was completely hooked when I saw Euclid's proof for an infinity of primes. I had been given it as a question in one of the books I was reading. I spent about an hour desperately trying to prove it . . . then I looked at the solution - I was stunned by its elegant simplicity. Another thing I really enjoyed was finding cool facts about numbers in kids maths cartoon books and proving them. I loved to show WHY things always worked, that is perhaps my favorite thing about maths.

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For me it was Monty Hall problem:

Suppose you're on a game show, and you're given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what's behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, "Do you want to pick door No. 2?" Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?

I saw this problem when I was 15 year old. I answered correctly (I probably used some kind of math intuition), but I thought that probability in the second case is $1/2$. Actually it is $2/3$. The proof is beautiful, as well as the answer. This fact amazed me. Even now, at 18, I suppose it is quite a beautiful problem.

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My first think of infinity was going from one corner of square to opposite corner. Start with route (0,0) -- (0,1) -- (1,1), then take (0,0) -- (0,½) -- (½,½) -- (1,½) -- (1,1) and so on. Path will come visually closer to diagonal, but lenght will stay at 2.

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Draw any triangle. On each side of the triangle, draw an equilateral triangle such that the new equilateral triangle shares a side with the original triangle. Connect the midpoints of your three new triangles - the result is another equilateral triangle!

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A story which I heard when I was in Primary School motivated me to understand the Power of Exponentials. The story goes like this--..........A Brahmin Priest presented the King with the Chess Board and explained to him how to pay War Games on this board . The King was pleased and asked the priest , what he wanted as a reward ..........The priest asked the King , that as he was very poor ,he needed some grains to feed his family .He asked the King to put one grain of rice in the first square of the chess board. , then put two grains in the second square ,four grains in the third square----and continue this way doubling the number of grains in the next square --till he reaches the end--the 64th square ."I will take whatever grains are there on the Chess Board..that will be sufficient for my needs"..said the Brahmin...........The king tried to satisfy the needs of the Brahmin ,but soon found out that all the grains in the Kingdom will still fall short of his needs ....... . The King was pleased with the priest's intelligence and appointed him as the Royal Astronomer & Astrologer .

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Beremiz, an Arab mathematician, arrives on foot to a bedouin camp, accompanied by a friend that rides a camel, only to find three boys having a dispute about the testament of their recently deceased father. In the will, the father had left his herd of camels to be divided among his sons, in the following proportion: the older son should receive half of the camels, the middle son should receive a third of the camels, the younger son should receive one in each nine camels. The problem is that his herd was composed of 35 camels... So, the boys reckoned that, in order not to fail their father's instructions, they would have to reserve at most 17 camels to the older one, at most 11 camels to the middle one, and at most 3 camels to the younger one. This looked bad, not only because the divisions all left remainders, but because in fact there would still be a few camels attributed to no one after the three sons received their share! To help them find a fair solution to their predicament, Beremiz then asks his friend to give his own camel to the brothers, a suggestion to which his friend reluctantly assents. As a result, the division now goes smoother, and the three boys are happier, having respectively received 18, 12 and 4 camels. They are so happy, indeed, that they give the 2 remaining camels to Beremiz and his friend!

I once had to teach young children (and some not so young!) to sum fractions, and it was easy to generate a whole set of problems based on the same approach (a collection of fractions that do not sum to 1). I believe this will give rise to straightforward illustrations for your book, Liz.

Malba Tahan's book "The Man Who Counted" may be claimed to be the way in which any Brazilian younger than 80 has first gotten in touch with the beauty of math. Its romanticized recreational presentation makes it easily accessible and great fun for children already in their early school years. "Splitting 35 camels" is the first mathematical problem which the readers are confronted with, in this book.

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This is a new interesting 4x4 Magic Sqaure, which I believe will be interesting to School Children. Here each element of the square is a square number. This was provided by Dr. Geoffrey Campbell

509020 is the sum of rows and columns

  29^2 |  191^2 |  673^2 |  137^2 || 509020 
  71^2 |  647^2 |  139^2 |  257^2 || 509020 
 277^2 |  211^2 |  163^2 |  601^2 || 509020 
 653^2 |   97^2 |  101^2 |  251^2 || 509020    
509020 | 509020 | 509020 | 509020 || 509020 
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I don't find it beautiful, but I still find the idea expressed by the following something of a psychological curiosity:

How can it be that when some algebraists say "AND" and "OR" they mean exactly the same thing?

OR means this that "false or false" is false, "false or true", "true or false" as well as "true or true" are true, or more compactly:

    F  T
 F  F  T
 T  T  T

AND means this:

    F  T
 F  F  F
 T  F  T

But, since NOT(x OR y)=(NOT x AND NOT y) and NOT(T)=F and NOT(F)=T, OR and AND, to an algebraist, mean exactly the same thing!

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Your answer implies that $\neg ( \perp \lor \top) \iff ( \neg \perp \land \neg \top) \iff ( \top \land \perp ) \iff ( \perp \lor \top)$. Your truth table for $\land$ is wrong. –  Andrew Salmon Mar 23 '13 at 21:10

protected by Zev Chonoles Mar 7 '13 at 22:43

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