For many of us, there is little on Earth that could be considered less creative, less inspiring and, quite simply, less interesting than mathematics.
But Ian Stewart – mathematician, popularizer and highly prolific writer – strongly disagrees. For Stewart, mathematics is far more than dreary...
Ian Stewart is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Warwick and the author of over 140 scientific papers and numerous textbooks. He is also a highly successful popularscience and sciencefiction writer and was the first recipient of the Christopher Zeeman Medal for his work on the pu...
Letters to a Young Mathematician
by Ian Stewart

Visions of Infinity: The Great Mathematical Problems
by Ian Stewart

Why Beauty Is Truth: The History of Symmetry
by Ian Stewart

The Mathematics of Life
by Ian Stewart

In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World
by Ian Stewart

An engineer, a physicist and a mathematician are on a train that has just crossed into Scotland when outside of their window they see a black sheep standing in a field.
“How odd,” says the engineer. “All the sheep in Scotland are black”.
“No no!” counters the physicist indignantly. “You can’t just generalize like that. All we can say is that only some Scottish sheep are black.”
“You idiots,” sighs the mathematician, exasperated. “Always jumping to conclusions. The only thing we can say with any certainty is that there is at least one sheep in Scotland which is black on one side”.
This joke might surprise you for two reasons.
For starters, you may be shocked to discover that there is such a thing as “mathematical humour” at all. It’s not the sort of thing that most people are even aware of.
But more significantly, it might make you suspect that what mathematicians are – what they do, how they think and what motivates them – is very, very, different from what any long buried tussles with long division might have naively led you to believe.
Of course, we frequently have a pretty superficial image of other professions. Policemen do more than chase bad guys, while doctors do more than dispense medicine. On the other hand, policemen do chase bad guys and doctors do dispense medicine. Mathematicians, on the other hand, typically spend no more time doing long division than the rest of us. And most aren’t any better at it – or any more excited at the prospect of doing it – than anyone else.
So what do they do all day?
According to Ian Stewart, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Warwick and a highly acclaimed writer of both popular math books and science fiction, real mathematics is far removed from arithmetic.
“It’s about form and structure and logical connections. If certain things happen, if a problem is set up in a particular way, it has certain ingredients. What does that tell you? How can you answer it? It’s about problem solving, but it’s also about seeing the kind of elegant structure that opens up a better understanding of whatever it is you’re working on...”