Letters to a Young Mathematician

Author: Ian Stewart
Published: 2006
Website: Wikipedia Page

Ian Stewart’s work as a public advocate of mathematics comes through strongly in this sweet and entertaining book. The epistolary style is endearing and emphasizes the passage of time as ‘Meg’ goes through her life as a mathematician, beginning as a student and ending as a tenured professor. However, it doesn’t provide a great deal of structure, as Stewart writes essentially exactly what he pleases in each chapter with little warning of what’s to come. Sometimes he writes about the internal structure of the mathematical community, the ways in which people collaborate and don’t, the historical trajectory of the social role of the mathematician and the importance of conferences, all of which is interesting, though not hugely novel.

Other times, he gives ‘Meg’ advice, which, while often humorous, is usually so specific that it appears as if he wants his book to be a life reference guide for mathematicians, which seems at odds with his stated goal of being an engaging inside look at what being a mathematician actually entails. Stewart’s comic sense is at its best in telling absurd anecdotes about the many many mistakes made by mathematicians, which are hilarious both because humans are silly and also because of the contrast with the image of a mathematician as stodgy, stuffy and stoic.

Stewart’s clear passion, though, aside from math itself and the wonder of patterns and proofs and interdisciplinary connections, is the philosophy of math. He ventures into the nature of mathematics (formalism and Platonism), whether ‘god’ is a mathematician, the interplay between pure and applied mathematics, and a few other topics. None of his analysis would make it into the annals of philosophy, but his pragmatic attitude towards the often overplayed philosophical dichotomies is refreshing and would likely be highly informative for a reader who had never read philosophy before.

All in all, Letters to a Young Mathematician is an enjoyable read, and one that I, as a math major, could often identify with. However, the title should be taken seriously. For all it delves into the world of professorship and tenure, the book is really meant for non-mathematicians and high school students.


One Comment to “Letters to a Young Mathematician”

  1. Ian Stewart seems very readable… But I’m inclined to read Prime Obsession as my first pop math book. From what you’ve said, Letters to a Young Mathematician seems to be about the larger picture of mathematics and less about the math itself.


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