The best books about the mathematical life

T.W. Körner Author Of The Pleasures of Counting
By T.W. Körner

Who am I?

If you want to know what conducting an orchestra is like, you ask a conductor. If you want to know what being a mathematician is like, you ask a mathematician. I have been studying, researching, and teaching mathematics (mainly at Cambridge but also in France and elsewhere) for a lifetime and loved (almost) every moment of it. In the words of Constance Reid, `Mathematicians are people who devote their lives to what seems to me a wonderful kind of play.'

I wrote...

The Pleasures of Counting

By T.W. Körner,

Book cover of The Pleasures of Counting

What is my book about?

The demand that learning should be certified by examinations coupled with the natural demand that those examinations should be fair tends to produce a rather dull experience. It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness and I wrote this book to show that mathematics is useful, important, and interesting.

Why are we not all called Smith (and its implications for evolution)? Why are Arctic animals large? What is the fastest way to sort an index? Does the wind have a velocity? Why did convoy work? If such questions interest you then, I hope, so will my book.

The books I picked & why

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Man Must Measure: The Wonderful World of Mathematics

By Lancelot Hogben, Andre (illustrator), Charles Keeping (illustrator), Kenneth Symonds (illustrator), Marjorie Saynor (illustrator)

Book cover of Man Must Measure: The Wonderful World of Mathematics

Why this book?

This book is out of print, but I include it in the hope that some public-spirited publisher may be persuaded to reissue this large-format picture book. It was the first book on mathematics that I read at about the age of ten and it contained precisely what I needed to show me that this was a subject with a history and a use. (Nor am I the only mathematician to have this experience.)

As an adult, I found the same author’s Mathematics for the Million a bit crass and utilitarian but I pardon him everything for a wonderful first experience.

A Mathematician's Apology

By G.H. Hardy,

Book cover of A Mathematician's Apology

Why this book?

I read this in one gulp at the age of sixteen, but it has remained part of my mental furniture to this day. There is a story from the First World War of a Cambridge don accosted in the street with a demand to explain why he was not at the front. "Madam, I am the civilisation they are fighting to preserve." Written in a very dark time, it is a celebration of the value of intellectual endeavour independent of practical utility. Beautifully written it gives genuine insight into the nature of mathematical thought.

Origami, Eleusis, and the Soma Cube: Martin Gardner's Mathematical Diversions

By Martin Gardner,

Book cover of Origami, Eleusis, and the Soma Cube: Martin Gardner's Mathematical Diversions

Why this book?

The Scientific American columns of Martin Gardner ran for 24 years and were read by amateurs, semi-amateurs, professionals, and major mathematicians (Conway, Knuth, Diaconis...). It was the interaction with this audience (recorded in addenda) which gave these essays their special quality and will give the interested outsider a real feel for what interests mathematicians. The collected columns are being reissued by the AMA and CUP but my view that anything by Martin Gardner is worth reading is reflected in my personal library.


By Constance Reid,

Book cover of Hilbert

Why this book?

For over a century Gottingen was the centre of the mathematical world. Hilbert presided over one of its greatest periods and this is as much a celebration of that time as of the man. A marvellous evocation of a mathematical paradise full of anecdotes. Naturally, it contains Hilbert's support for allowing Emmy Noether to lecture to students. "I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her admission as a Privatdozent. After all the Senate is not a bath-house."

Joseph Fourier: The Man and the Physicist

By John Herivel,

Book cover of Joseph Fourier: The Man and the Physicist

Why this book?

More mathematicians than you might expect have had eventful lives (and most of the others are grateful that they did not). Fourier, one of my mathematical heroes was twice in danger of the guillotine, played a substantial role in Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, is known as one of the Fathers of Egyptology, and was the first person to write about the ‘green-house effect’. To mathematicians and physicists this is all secondary to his work on heat conduction and, of course, the Fourier series. Herevel is an excellent guide to a remarkable life. (Herevel also had a non-standard career — the ‘Herevel tip’ was instrumental in early successes against Enigma.)

5 book lists we think you will like!

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Men of Mathematics, Newton, and Hypatia (1853) by Charles Kingsley if you like this list.