Popularizers I: Asimov on Numbers

Many popularizers are unjustly looked down upon by professional academic scientists and mathematicians.

I learned about that as an early age, and I also learned to reject those snobby attitudes. That’s mostly because of my dad’s influence: even though he had both a master’s degree (in science! as the Ducks Breath Mystery Theatre would say) and a doctorate (in medicine! though one of my doctors who has both an MD and a PhD claims that the MD isn’t a “real” doctorate) and wrote several professional books, he still respected and valued popularizers. One of the first popularizers that I learned about as a child was Isaac Asimov, famed science fiction writer, legitimate scientist, prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction, and all-around polymath. Other ones that I read when I was young included Martin Gardner and George Gamow. See my “official” photo at age 11, where the photographer had asked me what I was currently reading — he assumed, of course, that there must be at least one book that I was in the process of reading — and it turned out to be a book by George Gamow, so he posed me reading it. Douglas Hofstadter and Raymond Smullyan came a bit later to me as a young adult. I’ll write about all of these in subsequent posts. If more people would read these five authors and others like them, there might not be so many negative attitudes toward mathematics!

Anyway, I recently came across a reference to Asimov’s collection of essays about math, Asimov on NumbersSo I had to check out a copy from the library and read it again. Although these essays had all been initially published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction between 1959 and 1966, they remain fresh today. A few needed updating when the collection was published in 1977 — primarily because of new discoveries for pure math or new data for applied math — but nothing very significant. The best thing is the combination of relaxed and conversational style married with mathematical accuracy. Reading the essays with a fresh eye as a math teacher with decades of experience, I was struck by the observation that Asimov’s choice of topics happens to be an excellent subset of what I might choose if I were writing such a book today! I say “subset” because some obvious candidates for missing choices include cryptography, fractals, and game theory, but none of those would have been likely chapters in the ’60s. Take a look at the Table of Contents (image below), and you’ll see what I mean. Then get your own used copy of the book, either from a library or from Amazon, and give it a whirl.

Categories: Books, Math, Teaching & Learning