Loved Books: The Mathematical Experience by Philip J. Davis & Reuben Hersh

I was given this book as a Christmas present as a teenager but I had picked it out in a bookshop. It was part of a bunch of books I was given that included Anarchism by George Woodcock (since lost) and the Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland (which I still have somewhere).

The difference with this book was that maths was a new and surprising interest. I had never liked mathematics and for much of my schooling arithmetic had baffled me. However, past a certain age algebra in particular just clicked. I hadn’t noticed at first but as the work became more advanced I found that work was not getting proportionally harder, as in I was still finding it difficult but in the way I’d found times tables difficult except now we were doing work that everybody found hard.

So I started taking an interest in mathematics as mathematics and this book arrived when I needed it. Stepping into it I fell into a new rabbit hole – the sociology and philosophy of mathematics.

11 thoughts on “Loved Books: The Mathematical Experience by Philip J. Davis & Reuben Hersh

  1. Whereas I was always a math and math book person; Martin Gardner was a significant chunk of my youth, and I still have the first edition paperback my uncle gave me of Godel, Escher, Bach.

    That said, the book I have with that engraving on the cover was The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin (who was the Librarian of Congress when he wrote it). Actually, the Wikipedia page for the Flammarion engraving references both books and several other usages in modern times, along with discussions of the attempts to trace the history of it.

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      1. Got that, too, and The Mind’s I, which was the essay/fiction collection co-edited by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett about consciousness.

        Actually, my first math book would have been The Giant Golden Book of Mathematics:


      2. That’s too bad; I agree it was a great book, with a lot to think about.

        In my job, I do a lot of trouble-shooting and debugging, which often involves trying to hold multiple mental models of a system in my head at the same time to see how they interact with each other. (Usually a detailed model of a misbehaving subsystem, along with a more high-level model of the rest of the system, then running a ‘perturbation’ analysis to see what tweaks would do.) I have trouble even imagining holding the entire mental model of consciousness in your head at once.

        That said, I generally agree with the thesis of the collection. And, fundamentally, the entire point of chaos theory is that in sufficiently complex feedback systems, deterministic does NOT mean predictable.

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  2. I think my entry point was the Pelican edition of Mathematics and the Imagination by Kasner & Newman. The first two Martin Gardner collections of Scientific American columns also came into it, though — as Pelicans.


  3. Jenora: that engraving was also in the first ep of NdGT’s “Cosmos”.

    Cam, your Twitter link is busted.


    1. The Wikipedia page mentions that as well. And that the image only dates back to the 1880s as far as anybody can tell, for the second edition of Flammarion’s book on Meteorology, though it was almost certainly inspired by earlier images.


  4. Judging by that photograph, your copy has seen as much hard use as mine!
    Slightly curious fact: I also have copies of both Anarchism and The Norse Myths (which, like you, I have “somewhere”).

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