Letters to a Young Mathematician. The Art of Mentoring

24 July 2006

By Ian Stewart, Basic Books. Hardback ISBN 0465082319 £13.99 ($22.95).


“Our society consumes an awful lot of mathematics, but it all happens behind the scenes […] You want your car navigation system to give you directions without your having to do the math yourself. You want your phone to work without your having to understand signal processing and error-connecting codes.”

Letters to a Young Mathematician is a collection of letters addressed to “Meg”, an imaginary young girl who already shows interest in mathematics at high school. The author follows Meg until university, gives her advice, talks to her about mathematics and its relation to society, family, work and careers. In this way, the reader learns more about the raison d’être of mathematics, its applications in our everyday life, its past, present and future.

I particularly liked the first half of the book in which the author talks about himself, his personal experience and his motivations for becoming a mathematician. In these first letters, the reader can really feel the author’s enthusiasm and share with him the wonder of discovering mathematics everywhere, for example in the way roads are designed, in the sea’s waves or in the colours that we see.

The narration then becomes more abstract and therefore less close to the reader. Here references to mathematicians of the past replace too often the personal experience of the author and this makes the reading slower.

However, it never goes too far and links with real life can be found throughout the book. Often this is done by demonstrating how apparently abstract mathematical formulae are used in physics and hence in technology or computing.

The book is inspiring and full of interesting information without being boring. I wish a similar collection of letters could be written to a young physicist!

bright-rec iop pub iop-science physcis connect