My Take On “Letters To A Young Mathematician”

"Letters To A Young Mathematician", I. Stewart
“Letters To A Young Mathematician”, I. Stewart

Written by Warwick’s own Ian Stewart for a young mathematician like myself, “Letters To A Young Mathematician” almost felt like an obligatory read. The title of this series of fictional letters to an imaginary Meg (or should I say… complex?) practically screamed at me to read its contents! Having now read this though, and despite really enjoying it, I would say it is more suited to somebody who is not already on their way to progress in this area; as apart from an insight into a real mathematician’s life, I don’t feel like I’ve learnt a great deal about much else. Still, a book I would recommend to anyone who wishes to realise the beauty of this subject and how you don’t just “fall into it”.

Verdict? Not bad; not bad at all. The positives here outweigh the couple of criticisms I might have, so I shall begin with those. Prof. Stewart writes the letters to an aspiring mathematician progressing up the career ladder, which made me connect with it on quite a personal level. I often found myself asking at which “letter” would I place my own position at this moment in time? There are plenty of insights into what a mathematician actually does for a living, mainly based on Prof. Stewart’s own experience I guess. It’s a very interesting read into what my own life could look like in the future; becoming a lecturer and progressing up the ladder is not something I have yet crossed off my ‘Potential careers’ list! Thus this is quite a useful insight into what it would involve: seminars, travelling to conferences, giving lectures about your own research to distinguished minds all over the world (a daunting prospect!) and I guess, in all, being far more than just someone who ‘works with numbers’. Depending on your field, I guess numbers might even become a rare guest within your work.

“Rainbows are personal”.

The book does well to explain the nature of mathematics or, rather, how mathematics surround us in nature. I particularly enjoyed this pang of realisation in the very first chapter, where the geometry of a rainbow is discussed – that the rainbow you see may appear quite different to the rainbow that my eyes perceive. Each colour produces a colour cone, whose angle depends on the wavelength of the light. So the concentric circles of light picked up by my retina vary from the light which falls onto yours, depending on the angle of viewing. That’s something I didn’t know.

Perhaps contrary to its purpose, the decision to include imaginary events between the author and the imaginary Meg (“I really enjoyed our lunch last week”, for example) seemed to somewhat take away from an otherwise realistic series of correspondence. Nonetheless, I found this book to be a short but sweet, insightful and relatively inspirational read into the career of a mathematician. Definitely the right book to read just before starting the new term!

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