Take the 2-minute tour ×
Mathematics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields. It's 100% free, no registration required.

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.

share|improve this question
32  
Nice question, but should probably be community wiki? –  mrf Mar 7 '13 at 7:02
13  
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
12  
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
14  
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
16  
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
show 28 more comments

131 Answers

I must have been very small, around three of four, when I suddenly dashed out of my room, full of excitement, wanting to show my dad something that had made a great impression on me.

I held a book, it's front cover facing me.

enter image description here

In a flash, I gave it two half-turns. One upside-down, the other left to right. This is what came out:

enter image description here

I held my breath, as the trick wasn't over yet. Sure enough, two same quick moves and -lo and behold- the front cover was facing me properly again, just as in the beginning.

"Look! Dad!" :)

That surely must have been my first conscious encounter with symmetry.

I held the memory dearly close for a number of years but then forgot about it completely. It came back to me, only very recently, after going through the first pages of Nathan Carter's Visual Group Theory and seeing this image:

enter image description here

share|improve this answer
add comment

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.

share|improve this answer
add comment

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.

share|improve this answer
add comment

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.

share|improve this answer
add comment

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.

share|improve this answer
add comment

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.

share|improve this answer
add comment

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:

enter image description here

share|improve this answer
add comment

I first discovered that math was beautiful upon learning the divisibility rules. At that point I was just like "IT WORKS IT WORKS! HOW DID PEOPLE KNOW THAT?!" I remember I once stayed up to test the divisibility rule of dividing by $8$ (if the last three numbers in the dividend are divisible by $8$ then the whole number is divisible by $8$).

share|improve this answer
add comment

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!

share|improve this answer
add comment

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.

share|improve this answer
show 1 more comment

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!

share|improve this answer
1  
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
show 1 more comment

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

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.