The Math Instinct: Why You're a Mathematical Genius (Along with Lobsters, Birds, Cats, and Dogs)

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Overview

"There are two kinds of math: the hard kind and the easy kind. The easy kind, practiced by ants, shrimp, Welsh corgis - and us - is innate." "What innate calculating skills do we humans have? Leaving aside built-in mathematics, such as the phenomenon of sight, most of us do just fine when faced with complex mathematical tasks in the course of the day. Yet when we are confronted with the same tasks presented as "math," our accuracy often drops. But if we have innate mathematical ability, why do we have to teach math and why do most of us find it ...
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Overview

"There are two kinds of math: the hard kind and the easy kind. The easy kind, practiced by ants, shrimp, Welsh corgis - and us - is innate." "What innate calculating skills do we humans have? Leaving aside built-in mathematics, such as the phenomenon of sight, most of us do just fine when faced with complex mathematical tasks in the course of the day. Yet when we are confronted with the same tasks presented as "math," our accuracy often drops. But if we have innate mathematical ability, why do we have to teach math and why do most of us find it so hard to learn? Are there tricks or strategies that the ordinary person can do to improve mathematical ability? Can we improve our math skills by learning from dogs, cats, and other creatures that "do math"?" The answer to each of these questions is a qualified "yes." All these examples of animal math suggest that if we want to do better in the formal kind of math, we should see how it arises from natural mathematics. In The Math Instinct, NPR's "Math Guy" Dr. Keith Devlin takes us on a tour of the two kinds of math, and tells us how to get the most out of what we already have.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781560256724
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 3/15/2005
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.82 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

Keith  Devlin

Dr. Keith Devlin is Executive Director of Stanford's Center for the Study of Language and Information and a Consulting Professor of Mathematics at Stanford. He is a co-founder of Stanford’s Media X network – a campuswide research network focused on the design and use of interactive technologies – and its Executive Director. He is the author of twenty-four books, one interactive book on CD-ROM and over seventy-five published research articles. Since 1994 Devlin has been a regular contributor to NPR’s "Weekend Edition," where he is known as "the Math Guy" in his on-air conversations with host Scott Simon. Devlin is a frequent contributor to other local and national radio programs. Devlin was a co-writer of the BBC Horizon/WGBH Nova television documentary "A Mathematical Mystery Tour" and has appeared on a number of television programs, including the six-part PBS series "Life by the Numbers," for which he wrote the companion book.

Biography

Odds are, John Grisham doesn’t get interview questions like this: "If you could meet any mathematician, who would it be?"

But author Keith Devlin does, this time from Discover magazine as part of a January 2001 article coinciding with the publication of his book The Math Gene: How Mathematical Thinking Evolved and Why Numbers Are Like Gossip. His answer may go a long way toward explaining why he has managed to make the world of numbers not only understandable but also enjoyable to a segment of the population that can’t balance a checkbook without a net -- or backup from MIT.

“Isaac Newton,” Devlin told the inquiring minds at Discover. “He was a quarrelsome, egotistical person, but he also invented calculus. He did it, by the way, when he was a student at Cambridge. The Great Plague was going on, so the university was closed, and young Newton found himself without studies to do. Most 20-year-olds would think, ‘Whoopee! I’ll just have a good time.’ Newton went home and invented calculus.”

It is this same kind of passion for mathematics that has enabled Devlin, now the executive director of the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University, to persuade readers that arithmetic, geometry and calculus can be a bracing addition to the stack on the bedside table. In The Math Gene, he explains the “innate sense of number” that lives inside the human mind and how the development of mathematical thinking is closely bound to the development of language. In Goodbye, Descartes: The End of Logic and the Search for a New Cosmology of the Mind, he argues against the possibility of artificial intelligence, saying that computers are simply logic machines that cannot replicate the rational thought and communication that are part of human smarts. In his newest book, The Millennium Problems: The Seven Greatest Unsolved Mathematical Puzzles of Our Time, he explains a historic competition announced by a Cambridge, Massachusetts foundation in 2000: Anyone who could solve any one of seven of the most perplexing math problems of the current age would win $1 million.

In a 1999 review, the Economist noted that “Devlin succeeds both in giving us a glimpse of the internal beauty of the subject and in demonstrating its usefulness in the external world. The Language of Mathematics is lucidly written and richly illustrated, and remains accessible and enthusiastic throughout.”

On NPR’s Weekend Edition, where he has become a regular guest, Devlin is referred to simply as “The Math Guy,” or as host Scott Simon once put it “our white knight of the world of mathematics.”

And, going back to that provocative subtitle in The Math Gene, just how is math like gossip? “Mathematicians deal with a collection of objects -- numbers, triangles, groups, fields -- and ask questions like: ‘What is the relationship between Objects X and Y?. If X does this to Y, what will Y do back to X?’” he told Discover. “It's got plot, it's got characters, it's got relationships between them, and it's got life and emotion and passion and love and hate, a bit of everything you can find in a soap opera. On the other hand, a soap opera isn't going to get you to the moon and back. Mathematics can.”

Just don’t forget to carry the 1.

Good To Know

Devlin was the coauthor of the television special A Mathematical Mystery Tour, broadcast as part of the Nova series in 1984.

He once offered as proof of the human brain’s intuitive math skills the ability to judge speed and distance while driving and the ability to add up bowling scores.

Devlin once managed to explain the mathematical difference between a knot and a tangle to National Public Radio’s listeners.

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    1. Hometown:
      Palo Alto, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 16, 1947
    2. Place of Birth:
      Hull, England
    1. Education:
      B.S., King's College, London, 1968; Ph.D., University of Bristol, 1971

Table of Contents

1 Out of the minds of babies 1
2 Elvis : the Welsh Corgi who knows calculus 17
3 What is mathematics? 29
4 Where am I and where am I going? 39
5 Nature's architects : the creatures that can do the math of construction 71
6 Natural artists : the animals (and plants) that create beautiful patterns 91
7 It's just a step to the right : the math of motion 113
8 The eyes have it : the hidden math of vision 127
9 Animals in the math class 149
10 Razor sharp : the mathematical tricks of street traders and supermarket shoppers 165
11 All numbers great and small 199
12 The trouble with meaningless math 239
13 Tapping into our math instinct 249
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Why you can figure out the best buy in the store but got a headache in Algebra class

    This is a delightful and helpful book, especially for any one who has struggled learning math. I think it is also helpful for any one who teaches, and not just for math teachers. Dr. Devlin takes the reader on a journey mostly of animals and evaluates those, including humans, who have a natural ability and need to do math. Interestingly, he connects, at least some of the math problems humans often encounter learning "school" (or academic) math with differences in how math is taught and the natural way our brains do math. This difference seems to boil down to our penchant for patterns or rules.
    There are only two minor problems with this book. In chapter 4, Ahmed cannot possibly be male because all ant foragers are female: this is inherent in ant biology. And secondly, the vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus, does indeed bite humans as well as large livestock.

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    Posted March 1, 2011

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    Posted November 5, 2010

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