The beauty and wisdom of mathematics
Scientist and inventor Cliff Pickover introduces his newest book on the beauty of math, The Mathematics Devotional
Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya (1850–1891), the first major Russian female mathematician and the first woman appointed to a full professorship in Northern Europe, once wrote, “It is impossible to be a mathematician without being a poet in soul.” I stumbled across this quote as a student, and, at the time, I wondered what poetry and mathematics could have in common. This seed grew into my current interest in mathematics, mathematical art, and inspirational quotes by diverse people intrigued by mathematics.
Readers of my popular mathematics books already know how I feel about numbers and mathematics. Both are portals to other universes and new ways of thinking. In some sense, numbers help us glimpse a realm partly shielded from our minds and brains that have not evolved to fully comprehend the mathematical fabric. This tapestry stretches, in practical and theoretical areas, like a vast spider web with an infinity of connections and patterns. Higher mathematical discussions are a little like poetry. Danish physicist Niels Bohr felt similarly about physics when he said, “We must be clear that, when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.”
This leads me to my most recent book, The Mathematics Devotional. Every page of this yearlong devotional features a quotation about math, alongside a beautiful artwork relating to mathematics. The quotes range from Pythagoras to Feynman to Churchill. At the end of the book is a brief biographical dictionary that provides additional curiosities. Readers of Boing Boing may enjoy seeing a sampling of images from the book, which are reproduced here. As evident in many of the quotations selected for this book, mathematicians, throughout history, have often approached mathematics with a sense of awe, reverence, and mystery. I hope that both the quotes and artwork that I have collected from a range or artists will inspire readers to learn more about the universe of mathematics and the delights that mathematicians, artists, and computer programmers feel in exploring mathematics.
Going beyond inspiration, the usefulness of mathematics allows us to build spaceships and investigate the geometry of our universe. Numbers may be our first means of communication with intelligent alien races. Today, mathematics has permeated every field of scientific endeavor and plays an invaluable role in biology, physics, chemistry, economics, sociology, and engineering. Math can be used to help explain the structure of a rainbow, teach us how to make money in the stock market, guide a spacecraft, make weather forecasts, predict population growth, design buildings, quantify happiness, and analyze the spread of diseases.
Mathematics has caused a revolution. It has shaped our thoughts. It has shaped the way we think. Mathematics has changed the way we look at the world.
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