Where should I start reading mathematics if I never got far with it in school?

I’ve been asked variants of this question a number of times. So here’s a thorough answer for everyone.


First, some well-written books on topics that interest me:

My interests are like economics / psychology / philosophy / probability / trying-to-understand-the-universe, so that’s what I gravitate toward.


Second, some personalisation advice: Read anything mathematical that talks about something you’re interested in.

  • If you are into weather / fluids, check out MIT OCW’s courses from the atmospheric science department (free pdf’s).
  • If you’re into the philosophy of quantum mechanics, try Itamar Pitowsky’s book or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (it will get into hilbert spaces soon enough).
  • I haven’t read it, but Doug Hofstadter’s Gödel Escher Bach seems to have inspired a lot of people.
  • Are you into puzzles? computer graphics? metaphysics? linguistics? liquids? animals? music theorymorality? bargaining theory? economic growth? interpersonal relationships? politics? the function of cells? systems theory? how the body moves? There are mathematical takes on all of those.

I’ve seen speech-pathology students with bad-mathematics syndrome take off like a fish in water when they do maths that relates to what they know—building sawtooth waves, just intonation, EQ’s. You know, ear stuff.

I recommend starting from what you know and using mathematics as a bridge to other things. (“Hey, I didn’t realise audio engineering gets me trigonometry for free! And from there I can go on to land surveying.”)

Third, get used to reading  s l o w l y. I’m naturally a slow reader so this wasn’t a big adjustment for me. But people who are used to breezing through a paperback in an afternoon are often dismayed when they can’t do the same with mathematics. Expect mathematics books to take 10, 20, 30 times as long per page—or more—as regular English reading. You’re expected to re-read passages, turn back to refer to earlier definitions, grab pen & paper and play with a few examples yourself, and possibly cross-refer to other books / Wikipedias.

In fact, the speed/depth tradeoff is part of what makes mathematics pleasurable. After 2-3 years of reading news I’m typically left with a shallow, jerky, shiftless sensation. After 2-3 years of reading mathematics, I literally see the world differently—in a good way. I feel I’ve developed something worthwhile that makes my mind a more interesting place to be in, rather than a jumble of chattering trifles. So don’t worry if you only get through 2-3 pages at a sitting. Not every page will take 20 minutes to comprehend, but some single pages need to slosh around in your brain for days or months. Don’t worry about it. That’s normal. Go slow; go deep.


Finally: I try to write for who didn’t do the whole calc 1-2-3-4, ode, real analysis thing. In an ideal world, my writing would come out well enough that an artist or writer with no mathematical confidence could parse it and be inspired with a new thought-shape.

That’s for the original posts.I also try to make people aware of things that are well-known in my circles but not well-known in general. For example, did you know that some guy was actually able to define complexity?

There are three ways to explore this blog:

About isomorphismes

Argonaut: someone engaged in a dangerous but potentially rewarding adventure.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s