We all love music, beautiful paintings and great literature without being trained musicians, talented artists or accomplished writers. It is the same with mathematics: we can enjoy the elegance of brilliant logical arguments and appreciate the beauty of mathematical structures and symmetries without being skilled creators of new theorems. [See TM097, or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].
Many people derive great joy and fulfilment through recreational maths. They study the culture of mathematics, its relevance to art, music and literature, its role in technology, and the personal lives of the great mathematicians.
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, the late, great populariser of mathematics, introduced millions of people to the wonder, variety and sheer fun of mathematics. 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 like 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, written by both enthusiasts and professionals. 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.
Amongst the best of these is Plus (https://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 and is a valuable resource for school students and teachers.
There are national and international conferences devoted to recreational mathematics. Notable among these are the MOVES (Mathematics of Various Entertaining Subjects) conferences, organized by MoMath, the National Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan (http://momath.org/). MoMath aims to enhance public understanding of the creative, social and aesthetic aspects of the subject through exhibits 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 (see image above) is inspired by images of turbulent flow around an airplane, 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. The opening is on 8 December.