I enjoy giving interesting problems to my peers who have not seen a lot of mathematics. It is a constant conversation I have with many friends who would interchange "mathematical thinking" with "mechanical thinking" in conversation. Consequently, I often make it my mission to elucidate why mathematics is a beautiful subject, and one that essentially deals with the ideas, and an unreserved asking of questions. I'm of the opinion that the symbolic representation of a concept is over-emphasized in the earlier years of math and pushes people away from a subject.

A few days ago, I was speaking with a good friend of mine who graduated with a degree in philosophy, but had taken courses through "vector calculus" in mathematics. I spent some time trying to explain why his vision of mathematics was incorrect-- but a problem speaks a thousand words. I gave him a problem I saw in Paul Lockhart's "A Mathematician's Lament"

Given two points who rest above a horizontal line, find the shortest distance between them so that the path touches the line only once. It can be found here on SE: An elementary (?) minimization problem

He spent a solid hour on it, intermittently asking questions throughout (kind of a game of "20 questions") and we eventually came to the correct answer.

I want him to perhaps see some more mathematics, but in a more "abstract" or "Advanced setting." He is out of college, and so, has extra time to enjoy mathematics, and I think he has a real knack for it.

In response to the close vote, I will rephrase my main question, I agree it was perhaps too broad.

My main question: I'm requesting a book suitable for someone who is intelligent, and also interested in more abstract/pure mathematics. His interests are rested in solving interesting questions, but also in more general mathematical structure. I was tempted to give something like Paul Zeitz's Art and Craft of Problem Solving but elected against it, since it didn't give any insight regarding the coherence of mathematical concepts.

Thus, I'm asking for a reference that you may have found inspiring, but also elucidated a novel mathematical concept in a natural way. Recommendations for a particular subject in math is also appreciated, I'm not sure where to start him.

I ended up using some of the recommendations:

Mathematician's Delight and Euler's Gem seemed like good starting points.

I really considered Visual Complex Analysis, since my acquaintance had some familiarity with vector calculus, and I thought it may have been an interesting place to start.

I also supplied the introduction (and 1st half of chapter 1) of Mathematics Made Difficult, because I find it to be very funny, but also I thought the Platonic Dialogue in the first chapter is quite captivating. I may also send over some of his discussion of Topology and the "open men," for similar reasons.

  • $\begingroup$ As an aside, if one thinks that this question is better suited for a different site, I also understand that concern. $\endgroup$ – Andres Mejia Mar 14 '16 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe an elementary number theory book? Elementary number theory is light on formal prerequisites, but can demand a great deal of cleverness and creativity. $\endgroup$ – carmichael561 Mar 14 '16 at 19:07
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    $\begingroup$ Graph theory is also fun to explore and is full of puzzles accessible to those who have no training in linear algebra, etc. $\endgroup$ – Théophile Mar 14 '16 at 19:15
  • $\begingroup$ hm, I think both suggestions are good because those are kind of self-contained objects of study. Do either of you have particular recommendations concerning a specific text for someone who will likely be an autodidact? $\endgroup$ – Andres Mejia Mar 14 '16 at 20:10
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    $\begingroup$ There are several old books by W. W. Sawyer that are a joy to read and might work well for your friend, such as Mathematician's Delight and Prelude to Mathematics and What is Calculus About? and A Path to Modern Mathematics. $\endgroup$ – Dave L. Renfro Mar 14 '16 at 21:40

I definitely understand your desire to find some books that reveal some unification of mathematical themes. Any books I can think of that might come close are either for people with a fairly solid mathematical background (e.g. Stillwell's Mathematics and its History), or leaning in a direction that's perhaps more historical or "popular" math book style. These are great, but I don't really think they're what you're after.

I'll just recommend books of mathematical problems that can be handled by the "uninitiated" and that, hopefully, have a common theme lurking in the background. After all, I personally like math for the fun things you get to struggle thinking about!

I've been using books from the Discovering the Art of Mathematics series for a "math for liberal arts" course this semester. Some of them are probably more appropriate for your friend than others, but I've liked all the ones I've seen. They're all worth looking at, and each is more or less conceptually unified. However, some of the activities are really geared towards groups of people/discussions.

On one page of the website, they mention Harold Jacob's Mathematics, A Human Endeavor. I wish I could recommend it personally, but I've never taken the time to get my hands on a copy. It seems pretty great, and is definitely investigation/exercise oriented from what I understand. I didn't realize how reasonably priced a used copy is.

One book I can personally recommend is David Farmer's Groups and Symmetry: A Guide to Discovering Mathematics. This is very investigation-based as well, and has a pretty self-explanatory title. I haven't sat down with all of it, but it has some very nice geometry and light group theory from the very beginning. Also very reasonably priced.

Finally, just one more book that isn't quite like the rest. J. H. Conway and friends released a book, Symmetries of Things, that's really quite wonderful. It falls a little more into the story/text end of things (less investigation baked in, but plenty to be found if you're willing to ask the questions yourself), and covers much of the same material as Farmer, plus much more. Gradually the sophistication of the material increases, the latter two-thirds of the book for strong undergrad math majors, the final third beyond that. But it tells a really nice story very well, and shows some interesting unification (in particular, the 17 wallpaper groups are classified using purely topological arguments!). The fascinating story and nice pictures make the latter parts of the book enjoyable, even if most of the math isn't accessible.

  • $\begingroup$ All of these are great! thank you for the suggestions. $\endgroup$ – Andres Mejia Mar 15 '16 at 1:32
  • $\begingroup$ @AndresMejia I hope something works out! You may want to leave this answer unaccepted for a bit, in case it incentivizes anyone to throw something else out there :) $\endgroup$ – pjs36 Mar 15 '16 at 2:23

I will reproduce Dave L. Renfro's comments here for future reference:

"There are several old books by W. W. Sawyer that are a joy to read and might work well for your friend, such as Mathematician's Delight and Prelude to Mathematics and What is Calculus About? and A Path to Modern Mathematics."

"I would perhaps suggest Journey Into Mathematics by Rotman, Numbers: Rational and Irrational by Niven, Invitation to Number Theory by Ore, or Mathematical Problems: An Anthology by Dynkin.

This past weekend I looked through my books at home and came up with two books that are likely to be off the radar screen of others. Each book is authored by two very strong and knowledgeable mathematicians and each book is filled with excellent exposition of nontrivial mathematics. Most of the exposition in Kac/Ulam, and all of the exposition of Rademacher/Toeplitz, should be understandable to someone who has not yet studied calculus, but the authors definitely do not talk down to the reader.

As Rademacher/Toeplitz say in their Introduction, and this also applies to Kac/Ulam's book, this is not a book of "mathematical games and pastimes ... [as that would] give at best a very distorted picture of what mathematics really is", and this is not a book about "the foundations of mathematics with regard to their general philosophical validity ... [as that would] be attaching an extraneous value to mathematics, to be judging its value according to measures outside itself."

Kac/Ulam book: Mark Kac and Stanislaw Marcin Ulam, Mathematics and Logic. Retrospect and Prospects, Frederick A. Praeger, 1968, x + 170 pages.

[Reprinted (abridged) by Penguin Books in 1979. Reprinted, with title shortened to Mathematics and Logic, by Dover Publications in 1992.]

Rademacher/Toeplitz book: Hans Adolph Rademacher and Otto Toeplitz, The Enjoyment of Mathematics. Selections from Mathematics for the Amateur, Princeton University Press, 1957, vi + 205 pages.

[Reprinted by Dover Publications in 1990 and reprinted by Princeton University Press in 1994.]"


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