MathOverflow is a question and answer site for professional mathematicians. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

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 :-) ).

share|cite|improve this question

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:

  • "This question does not appear to be about research level mathematics within the scope defined in the help center." – Mark Meckes, Andy Putman, j.c.
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

61 Answers 61

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 "+".

share|cite|improve this answer

Title: Why Beauty is Truth: A History of Symmetry

Author: Ian Stewart

Brief Description: Stewart surveys the history of symmetry in mathematics (from ancient times to present day). There is particular emphasis on the insolvability of the quintic, the invention of Galois theory, and its impact on modern mathematics.

share|cite|improve this answer

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.

share|cite|improve this answer

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.

share|cite|improve this answer
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

Title: An Imaginary Tale

Author: Paul Nahin

Short Description: This book is primarily about complex numbers. I can't remember it that well, but most of the book doesn't require calculus (though a fair part definitely does). Most of it is about the algebra and geometry of complex numbers and is thus accessible to the nonmathematician. The last chapter has a very fun introduction to complex analysis.

share|cite|improve this answer
This book is/was riddled with errors. He released a second edition at the behest of R.B. Burckel, and from what he has told me, none of the corrections were made. I understand that this book is pop-math, and thus the reader may not be desiring of great precision. However, most of the errors contained therein could have been omitted without disruption of the colloquial style or prose. – B. Bischof Dec 14 '09 at 1:04
I read this one in high school and didn't like it. The errors were a serious problem, and the exposition felt dry to me. – Charles Siegel Dec 15 '09 at 13:57

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.

share|cite|improve this answer

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.
share|cite|improve this answer
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

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.

share|cite|improve this answer

Title: The Art of Mathematics

Author: B. Bollobas

Short Review: "The Author considers these problems to be the type that two mathematical friends would pose to each other and discuss over a cup of coffee in a lounge. I agree with that premise, they are not too hard and there is a proof that is relatively easy to discover and even easier to understand. These problems satisfy all of the requirements for a good problem..."

This is one of the most entertaining recreation-mathematical books I've ever read. It does require some mathematical knowledge to be fully appreciated though :)

share|cite|improve this answer
I don't know about you, but this is a little too dense for my aunt! – Qiaochu Yuan Dec 12 '09 at 3:56
Haha, well I've gotten it as a present that's why it came to mind. I totally forgot about the aunt part. – Gjergji Zaimi Dec 12 '09 at 4:11
I'm reading this one now and rather like it. It should be noted that the problems in this book are some that mathematicians think about casually -- basically, Bollobas says he was looking for problems that Erdos or Littlewood, the two "great" mathematicians he says he's known, would have liked. So the level of difficulty is quite high for a "recreational" book. – Michael Lugo Dec 30 '09 at 2:13
Are this book and that by King, Jerry P. the same, thanks for any explanation. – awllower Feb 17 '11 at 9:11

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.

share|cite|improve this answer

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 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!

share|cite|improve this answer

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.

share|cite|improve this answer

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.

share|cite|improve this answer

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.

share|cite|improve this answer

Title: Recoltes et Semailles (Reapings and Sowings) Author: Alexander Grothendieck

Description: Grothendieck's autobiography and self-assessment as a mathematician and a person.

share|cite|improve this answer
I don't know if I'd call this "popular". – Michael Lugo Jan 7 '10 at 15:47
For sure this is an interesting book, first time I read first section then I was 18 I loved it. Second time I read it when I was 25-27 I hated it. Maybe it is time to read it again :) – Dmitri Jan 19 '10 at 0:21

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

share|cite|improve this answer

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.

share|cite|improve this answer

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).

share|cite|improve this answer

Title: Wonders of Numbers: Adventures in Mathematics, Mind, and Meaning

Author: Clifford A. Pickover

Short Description: A wonderful collection of historical anecdotes, mathematical trivia, and puzzles. I would especially recommend this if you were shopping for a younger relative.

share|cite|improve this answer
I do like the books by Pickover very much. I think he is very over-looked. – Bart Snapp Jun 6 '10 at 22:30

Title: Another Fine Math You've Got Me Into

Author: Ian Stewart.

Short Description: Mathematical puzzle columns, (originally for the French version of Scientific American) some of which introduce interesting concepts from higher mathematics. Ian Stewart has written a lot in this vein (as have others, e.g. Martin Gardner), but this book is my favorite and is one of the mathematically meatiest of them (in my opinion).

I'd say this is a ++.

share|cite|improve this answer

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

share|cite|improve this answer

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.

share|cite|improve this answer

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.

share|cite|improve this answer

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.

share|cite|improve this answer

Title: Euclid's Window

Author: Leonard Mlodinow

Short Description: A history of geometry of sorts. It's very well-written and was one of my favorite math books growing up. But you should read the Table of Contents to actually get an idea of what the book is about.

share|cite|improve this answer
It's perhaps worth noting that there are dissenting opinions on this book, e.g. the following review by Langlands: – TSG Dec 12 '09 at 12:08
Interesting. I read this book when I was very young and haven't since, so perhaps my opinion would change if I gave it another look. – Qiaochu Yuan Dec 12 '09 at 16:34

Title: Introduction to Mathematical Thinking: The Formation of Concepts in Modern Mathematics

Author: Friedrich Waismann

Short Description: This book, first published in 1936, gives an introduction to the philosophy of mathematics and the foundations of analysis. It shows how to construct number systems, some very elementary set theory and how to make differential calculus precise. The focus is on concepts. It includes a discussion of things like continuuous, nowhere differentiable functions and discusses why R and R2 are isomorphic as sets but not topologically. It even gives an very short and intuitive proof that R and R2 are not homeomorphic.

The philosophical discussion is, naturally, a litlle bit dated. It discusses formalism, logicism and intuitivism. The philosophy still makes for exciting historical reading. It is clear that this discussion was very lively when this book was written.

The level should youalify as ++, the book is demanding but can certainly be read before going to college.

share|cite|improve this answer

I know this is a little late for Christmas, but nevertheless, I have a few (some of which have already been mentioned) books I've read that I've quite enjoyed. For the sake of brevity, I'll let you search the titles on Amazon for reviews and better descriptions.

Title: Everything & More: A Compact History of Infinity Author: David Foster Wallace

Title: The Mathematical Experience Author(s): Philip J Davis & Reuben Hersh

Title: One, Two, Three...Infinity Author: George Gamow

Title: Pi in the Sky Author: John D. Barrow

Title: Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics Author: John Derbyshire

Title: Strength in Numbers Author: Sherman Stein

Title: e: The Story of a Number Author: Eli Maor

Title: A History of Pi Author: Petr Beckmann

Title: Nature's Numbers Author: Ian Stewart

Title: Mathematics: The Science of Patterns Author: Keith Devlin

Title: Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea Author: Charles Seife

Title: How to Enjoy Calculus Author: Eli S. Pine (Not really a "popular" book, per se', but still pretty good)

Title: How to Think About Weird Things Author(s): Theodore Schick & Lewis Vaughn (Not really about mathematics, but not so far out of the way that you wouldn't enjoy it if you also enjoy mathematics)

share|cite|improve this answer

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

share|cite|improve this answer
This was already posted. – Jonas Meyer Mar 11 '10 at 21:42

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.

share|cite|improve this answer

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 ++!

share|cite|improve this answer

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.