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Christmas is almost here, so imagine you want to buy a good popular math book for your aunt (or whoever you want). Which book would you buy or recommend?

It would be nice if you could answer in the following way:

Title: The Poincaré Conjecture: In Search of the Shape of the Universe
Author: Donal O'Shea
Short description: The history of the Poincaré Conjecture.
(Perhaps something like "difficulty level": + (no prior knowledge of math, as the book mentioned above), ++ (some prior knowledge of math is helpful), +++ (Roger Penrose: Road to Reality (?))

I hope this is appropriate for MO, since I think is of interest to mathematicians (at least for those who want to buy a popular math book for some aunt :-) ).

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closed as off-topic by Mark Meckes, Stefan Kohl, Willie Wong, Andy Putman, j.c. Dec 18 '13 at 17:02

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

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61 Answers 61

Title: The Symmetries of Things

Authors: John Horton Conway, Heidi Burgiel, and Chaim Goodman-Strauss

Description: The authors begin by introducing the general concept of geometric symmetry / regular tiling, and then pose the problem of classifying all possible symmetries of the plane. They provide an elegant topological classification, and along the way introduce the notions of orbifold and classify the compact surfaces with boundary. It's then easy enough to also classify the discrete symmetries of the sphere. In part II, the authors introduce the notion abstract group, and classify the prime-order "color symmetries" of the plane, which are tiling patterns with different-colored tiles. Part III consists of a discussion of higher-dimensional tilings, including the four-dimensional Archimedean solids.

Part I is suitable for an interested amateur with no specific prior knowledge. Part II is at an advanced undergraduate level, although it does contain new results. Part III, which is about half the book, is research level. The book is printed in full-color.

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Ian Stewart is a very good mathematics popularizer and I understand why many of his books are in this list. But I really don't understand why none of Martin Gardner's books are listed here (at the time I'm writing this).

My favorite Martin Gardner book (actually, an updated collection of Scientific American Mathematical Games columns) is The Colossal Book of Mathematics. From the book's cover: "Number Theory, Algebra, Geometry, Probability, Topology, Game Theory, Infinity, and other topics of recreational mathematics." I would say its difficulty level is "+".

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Wonder why it is that nobody has mentioned Lion-Hunting & Other Mathematical Pursuits? That book is one of my all-time favorites.

The book was edited by Gerald L. Alexanderson, the same individual behind the random walks of G. Pólya. Not only does the book contain the original article that launched the theory of big game hunting as a branch of mathematical research of its own, but also several of the subsequent contributions motivated by that 1938 groundbreaking paper of H. Pétard, e.g.:

  • If there is an even number of lions in the Sahara Desert we add a tame lion. Thus we may assume that the group of the Sahara lions is of odd order. This renders the situation capable of solution according to the work of Feit and Thompson.
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Is this book one such that it contains a way to capture lions using inverse mappings?It seems to be pretty fun and may I ask what level does it require? –  awllower Feb 17 '11 at 9:05

Title: Journey Through Genius

Author: William Dunham

Short Description: A fencepost history of mathematics. For each highpoint it describes some fun history and then the actual math. Examples of topics covered are Heron's formula for triangular area, Euler's evaluation of $\zeta(2)$ and Cantor's set theory.

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Dunham is a great writer. I also liked his book "Euler: The Master of us All" a lot. –  Kevin H. Lin Dec 12 '09 at 15:46
This book made me want to study mathematics! –  Max Muller Jun 9 '10 at 17:31
I don't like the title - that genius cult in mathematics is a horrible thing in my opinion. –  Peter Arndt Dec 9 '10 at 7:38
Good point about the title, I still love the book though. –  Noah Snyder Dec 9 '10 at 15:54

Title: The Man Who Loved Only Numbers

Author: Paul Hoffman

Short Description: A biography of Paul Erdős. No previous knowledge of math.

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Although, those that knew him claimed he loved many things... –  Micah Milinovich Dec 11 '10 at 17:23
This is the most delightful biography I have read, of anyone in any field. –  shreevatsa Aug 6 '12 at 14:08

Title: Prisoner's Dilemma

Author: William Poundstone

Short description (from New York Times Book Review): The real originality of PRISONER'S DILEMMA lies in its colorful synthesis of logical material and historical and biographical narration [which] takes us in parallel lines through cold war history, strategic games of the nuclear age and the life of von Neumann . . . Lively, open and multifaceted.

Indeed, the book can be read as a whole or just by following one of those "parallel lines". Depending of the line you choose, the level of difficulty would be + or ++!

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You should not miss this book about algebra.

Title: Unknown Quantity

Author: John Derbyshire

Not only it explains the rise of algebra since antiquity, it also helps the reader to gain an intuitive approach to think and apply algebra in suitable problems. Great reading experience.

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Title: Hilbert

Author: Constance Reid

Description: Biography of David Hilbert. Fascinating. Don't have to be D.H. to enjoy it. [the following is added from a duplicate answer - feel free to clean up -- ed.] A beautiful biography of a famous mathematician, showing the passion for knowledge represented by Hilbert and others at Goettingen around 1900. The book has a good description of Hilbert as a person, describes his family and coworkers and (sadly) the decay at the end of Hibert's life as the Nazis took over. I ask some of my undergraduate students to read this so that they can see the excitement of being in our profession. (The book is out of print, I think, but available via half.com or ebay.)

Second recommendation Also, Time-Life, ca. 1965, published one of it's picture books on math, titled of all things Mathematics (as I recall). Check it out if you can find it. Lots of cool pictures. Great for mathematically inclined high school kids.

Note added in edit: The aforementioned book from the Time-Life series also had great pictures of mathematicians. As I recall, there was one of Eilenberg lying on the couch of his Grenwich Village apartment, coat and tie still on. It was captioned with a quote which went, if I recall correctly, "Sometimes I like to think riding on the subway, but mostly I like to think lying down." Absolutely formative in my personal approach to math!

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Title: What is mathematics?

Author: Herbert Robbins and Richard Courant

This book is a very nice introduction to mathematics, it covers basic number theory, analysis, algebra, geometry and topology.

I'am very surprised that i couldn't find it on this list already.

(from a duplicate answer - feel free to edit) This would be for someone who has some mathematical ability, and really wants to understand what math is. Courant goes through essentially all of mathematics, starting at a very elementary level, but getting to some very deep and important stuff. He often does real proofs, and doesn't dumb it down, but does explain things conceptually very well, including sometimes giving just ideas or justifications for really difficult things, like the prime number theorem. I use this when I teach our senior proof seminar, just to force the math majors to own a copy.

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My favourite books are:

  • $\text{I want to be a Mathematician}$ by Paul Halmos.

  • Problems for Mathematicians, young and old, by the same author.

  • The Man who knew Infinity: : A Life of the Genius Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel. Fanastatic book. Covers almost all of Ramanujan's life and work. Certainly a must read.

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Title: The I Hate Mathematics! Book

Author: Marilyn Burns

Short Description: The google.books description is well written. A book for nonbelievers. I had this as a kid, and i remember its questions and pictures having an effect on me. How many sides does a banana have and how can 4 colours colour this map.

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Upvoted because I loved this book as a kid (despite not hating math!) and haven't thought about it in thirty years. –  JSE Jun 16 '12 at 1:30

I see many favorites here, but this one should be mentioned too:

MR1710978 (2000h:00002) Hugo Steinhaus. Mathematical snapshots. Translated from the Polish. With a preface by Morris Kline. Reprint of the third (1983) English edition. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, NY, 1999. vi+311 pp. ISBN: 0-486-40914-7

It was first published in 1939 ("Kalejdoskop matematyczny" in Polish).

Here is the summary:


Things like fair division or platonic bodies made accessible for an aunt and a niece alike (I actually gave my copy to my niece a few years ago).

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Title One Two Three . . . Infinity: Facts and Speculations of Science

Author George Gamow

Short description While not limited to mathematics, this is a great book which presents some subtle mathematical ideas in an intuitive non-technical way. I especially like the presentation of Cantor's infinite cardinality theory, which can be followed by anyone. Unfortunately, there are some mistakes. I seem to recall his presentation implicitly assumes the continuum hypothesis, but maybe he did that for clarity. It doesn't really detract from the book.

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Title: Satan, Cantor & Infinity

Author: Raymond M. Smullyan

Short Description: Another gem in the list of Smullyan's books. If you love "logical sorcery", this is a perfect gift for you.

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Title: The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity

Author: Amir D. Aczel

Short Description: Another book about the development of ideas about infinity. The central character is Cantor, of course, but it also looks at people before, like Bolzano and Galileo, and afterwards, including Godel and Cohen for their work on CH.

I read this in high school, having just a little calculus background, and got a lot out of it. It does try to work in the themes of "contemplation of infinity leads to insanity" and "infinity as religious insight" a bit, which might be drawbacks. But when I read it for the first time, I remember laughing out loud at how amazing the ideas involving infinte cardinalites and AC were, so at least those are presented well.

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What about the Princeton Companion to Mathematics?

It contains alot of introductory information on the spectrum of mathematics with historical note. When you need a quick perspective on branches of mathematics that are less familiar to you, it is a place to go. The book is divided into sections on famous mathematicians, theorems, and branches of mathematics all of which cannot be held by even the most well versed mathematician.

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Title: The Mathematician's Brain

Author: David Ruelle

Short description: (++) A book describing how Mathematics are founded, and tries to give a reasoning for the brain-work needed to do math.

From Amazon: The Mathematician's Brain poses a provocative question about the world's most brilliant yet eccentric mathematical minds: were they brilliant because of their eccentricities or in spite of them? In this thought-provoking and entertaining book, David Ruelle, the well-known mathematical physicist who helped create chaos theory, gives us a rare insider's account of the celebrated mathematicians he has known-their quirks, oddities, personal tragedies, bad behavior, descents into madness, tragic ends, and the sublime, inexpressible beauty of their most breathtaking mathematical discoveries.

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Title: Mathematics and the Imagination

Authors: Edward Kasner and James Newman

Short Description: A number of chapters covering lots of subjects: counting numbers (including the coining of the word "googol"); $\pi$, $i$, and $e$; geometries, plane and "fancy" ("Lobachevsky's Eiffel Towers and Riemann's Holland Tunnels"); puzzles; paradoxes; chance and probability; topology ("rubber sheet geometry"); calculus. Very much in the spirit of Martin Gardner columns, but from before they existed (the book was originally published in 1940; Gardner began writing his columns in 1956). You can see a preview at Google books.

Which also leads me to

Author: Martin Gardner

Title: Various

Short Description: A joy to read.

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Title: Men of Mathematics

Author: E. T. Bell

Short Description: Short biographies (~30?) of important mathematicians. Excellent relations of the death of Archimedes, Galois' temper, Newton's eccentricities, &c. Also try his (Edit: actually L. Hogben's) book Mathematics for the Millions.

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A fun read, but not to be taken seriously as history. –  Gerry Myerson Dec 9 '10 at 8:04

Title: Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century

Author: Masha Gessen

Short Description: Story of Grigory Perelman based on information from people who interacted with him. A lot of interesting stuff about life in general and mathematics education in particular in Soviet Union around 1980's. There is only one or two short chapters where the author tries to explain the mathematics but if you skip those you don't need any serious mathematical skills.

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Title: A tangled tale

Author: Lewis Carroll

Description: (by Carroll himself in the preface) The writer’s intention was to embody in each Knot (like medicine so dexterously, but ineffectually, concealed in the jam of our early childhood) one or more mathematical questions — in Arithmetic, Algebra, or Geometry, as the case might be — for the amusement, and possible edification, of the fair readers of that magazine.

Of course, this will work as a gift for a niece better than a gift for an aunt, but it is one of those few books (the only other ones I know are by Smullyan and they've been mentioned already) that have both an entertaining story line and some actual mathematical challenges for the reader in them and that require no special mathematical training to read and enjoy.

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Title: The Magical Maze

Author: Ian Stewart

Short description: Various bits of counterintuitive, fundamental, and/or easily understood mathematics, to wit: modular arithmetic, Fibonacci numbers, depth-first search, the axiomatic method, the Monty Hall problem, the birthday paradoxes, wallpaper groups, cellular automata, dynamical systems, formalism, Godel incompleteness, Turing's halting problem, optimization problems (both continuous and discrete), algorithmic complexity, fractals, chaos, and Hausdorff dimension.

This book is, to a large extent, the reason I am in graduate school right now. I read it in the eighth grade, and now here I am.

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I'd recomend "The Pea and the Sun, a mathematical paradox" which roughly explains the proof of Bannach-Tarski Theorem, which is a consequence of the axiom of choice and roughly says that you can break a pea in a finite number of pieces, tehn reassemble the pieces and get the sun

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Title: Letters to a Young Mathematician

Author: Ian Stewart

Description: A beautiful book in which Stewart tries to convey in the form of letters from a mathematician to his grand daughter what sort of things does the profession of mathematics involves. It is very interesting since the letters advance from the time in which the grand daughter is in high school up until she is a professional mathematician doing research. I would recommend it without a doubt.

From my own experience it has been really nice to come to this book at different times during the past years. I started college as an engineering student but on my third year I started taking courses from the mathematics program and I bought and read this book when I was just beginning. I had no real idea of what pure mathematics was all about (since I was used to the kind of calculus courses in which the emphasis is on computation rather than proving things) and this book gave me at least some perspective and a few hints of what may be ahead of me.

Just for the record, I ended up switching my major to mathematics.

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Title: The Man Who Counted (translated from Portuguese)

Author: Malba Tahan

Short description: A mixture of Arabian Nights and a classical puzzlebook. The stories follow a brilliant youth who solves mathematical problems. A highly enjoyable read for anyone who likes oriental tales, and just the right combination of adventures and mathematics for all aunts and nephews out there without a mathematics degree.

Malba Tahan is a pen name of the Brazilian mathematician and writer Júlio César de Mello e Souza. The book was first published as O homem que calculava in 1949.

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I like Mario Livio's books:

The Golden Ratio: The Story of PHI, the World's Most Astonishing Number


The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved: How Mathematical Genius Discovered the Language of Symmetry

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Title : The Parrot's Theorem (Le théorème du perroquet)

Author : Denis Guedj

Description : I read this while in high school, it's kind of a murder mystery, and it revolves around a family who has a mathematician friend who was trying to solve the Goldbach conjecture and Fermat's last theorem before he died. It includes many fun mathematics and is presented in a very light to read manner.

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Title: Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction

Author: Timothy Gowers

Short description: "A marvellously lucid guide to the beauty and mystery of numbers"

This book is excellent for someone who wants to delve in to some basic, but interesting mathematics. It avoids very "popular mathematics" such as chaos theory and focuses in detail on "mundane" topics, such as dimension and estimation.

difficulty level: +

£4.73 on Amazon UK

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This was already posted. –  Jonas Meyer Mar 11 '10 at 21:42

Title: The Code Book

Author: Simon Singh

Description: This is a popularized history of cryptography and cryptanalysis. It runs the range from shift-ciphers to modern public key cryptosystems and quantum key distribution. No prior knowledge of maths is necessary, but can be helpful.

It has been quite some time since I read this book, but I found it incredibly engaging at the time. I know it isn't strictly focused on mathematics, but I am surprised that no one else has mentioned it.

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Title: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Author: Mark Haddon.

Description: A mathematically gifted kid tries to solve the mystery of a dog murdered in the night-time.

Remark: Although this isn't a math book per se, it actually does contain a lot of interesting and non-trivial mathematics. Also, it's very well illustrated. As a final selling point, you have to respect any book whose chapters are indexed by the primes.

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In my opinion, this looks more like a murder novel than an introductory or public mathematical book for an aunt to learn some math, any way, it is quite an enjoyment to read the book. –  awllower Feb 17 '11 at 8:55

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