Math Inspirations: Why Study Mathematics?

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What teacher hasn’t heard a student complain, “When am I ever going to have to use this?” Didn’t most of us ask it ourselves, once upon a time?

And unless we choose a math-intensive career like engineering, the truth is that after we leave school, most of us will never again use most of the math we learned.

But if math beyond arithmetic isn’t all that useful, then what’s the point?

If you or your student is singing the “Higher Math Blues,” here are some quotations that may cheer you up — or at least give you the strength of vision to keep on slogging.

We Study Mathematics…

To Understand Creation

I don’t want to convince you that mathematics is useful. It is, but utility is not the only criterion for value to humanity. Above all, I want to convince you that mathematics is beautiful, surprising, enjoyable, and interesting. In fact, mathematics is the closest that we humans get to true magic. How else to describe the patterns in our heads that — by some mysterious agency — capture patterns of the universe around us? Mathematics connects ideas that otherwise seem totally unrelated, revealing deep similarities that subsequently show up in nature.

— Ian Stewart
The Magical Maze

That vast book which stands forever open before our eyes, the universe, cannot be read until we have learnt the language in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word.

— Galileo Galilei
quoted by Clifford Pickover, A Passion for Mathematics

To Train Our Minds

The investigation of mathematical truths accustoms the mind to method and correctness in reasoning, and is an employment peculiarly worthy of rational beings.

— George Washington
quoted by William Dunham, The Mathematical Universe

I told myself, “Lincoln, you can never make a lawyer if you do not understand what demonstrate means.” So I left my situation in Springfield, went home to my father’s house, and stayed there till I could give any proposition in the six books of Euclid at sight. I then found out what “demonstrate” means, and went back to my law studies.

— Abraham Lincoln
quoted by William Dunham, The Mathematical Universe

To Understand History

In most sciences, one generation tears down what another has built, and what one has established another undoes. In mathematics alone, each generation adds a new story to the old structure.

— Herman Henkel
quoted by Noah benShea, Great Quotes to Inspire Great Teachers

Biographical history, as taught in our public schools, is still largely a history of boneheads: ridiculous kings and queens, paranoid political leaders, compulsive voyagers, ignorant generals — the flotsam and jetsam of historical currents. The men who radically altered history, the great scientists and mathematicians, are seldom mentioned, if at all.

— Martin Gardner
quoted by G. Simmons, Calculus Gems

I will not go so far as to say that constructing a history of thought without profound study of mathematical ideas is like omitting Hamlet from the play named after him. But it is certainly analogous to cutting out the part of Ophelia. For Ophelia is quite essential to the play, she is very charming. . . and a little mad.

— Alfred North Whitehead
quoted in The Viking Book of Aphorisms

To Appreciate the Beauty

The mathematician does not study pure mathematics because it is useful, he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful.

— Henri Poincaré
quoted by Theoni Pappas, More Joy of Mathematics

A mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas. The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s, must be beautiful. The ideas, like the colors or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics.

— Godfrey H. Hardy
A Mathematician’s Apology

And Most of All, to Play

Mathematics is a world created by the mind of men, and mathematicians are people who devote their lives to what seems to me a wonderful kind of play!

Constance Reid

At age eleven, I began Euclid, with my brother as tutor. This was one of the great events of my life, as dazzling as first love. I had not imagined there was anything so delicious in the world.

— Bertrand Russell
The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell

I love mathematics … principally because it is beautiful, because man has breathed his spirit of play into it, and because it has given him his greatest game — the encompassing of the infinite.

Rózsa Péter
quoted by Rosemary Schmalz, Out of the Mouths of Mathematicians

Did you enjoy these? You can find plenty more on my Math & Education Quotations page.

  • I would LOVE to hear YOUR favorite mathematics, education, or inspirational quote. Please share in the Comments section below!

 photo exploreMTBoS_zpsf2848a9a.jpgNever Ending Math Problem photo (above) by Danny via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).This post is part of the #MTBoS #MtbosBlogsplosion blogging challenge.

howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and you’ll be among the first to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.

Hidden Figures Teaching Resources


Are you taking your kids to see the movie Hidden Figures? Check out Raymond Johnson’s blog post for references and teaching ideas:

If you know of any other resources, please share in the comments below. And as I find new goodies, I’ll add them to the list here:

Background Information

Before computers were machines, computers were people who computed things. This complicated task often fell to women because it was considered basically clerical. That’s right: computing triple integrals all day long qualified as clerical.

— Samantha Schumacher
Hidden Figures Movie Review

howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and you’ll be among the first to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.

2017 Mathematics Game


Two of the most popular New Year’s Resolutions are to spend more time with family and friends, and to get more exercise. The 2017 Mathematics Game is a prime opportunity to do both at once.

So grab a partner, slip into your workout clothes, and pump up those mental muscles!

For many years mathematicians, scientists, engineers and others interested in mathematics have played “year games” via e-mail and in newsgroups. We don’t always know whether it is possible to write expressions for all the numbers from 1 to 100 using only the digits in the current year, but it is fun to try to see how many you can find. This year may prove to be a challenge.

Math Forum Year Game Site

Rules of the Game

Use the digits in the year 2017 to write mathematical expressions for the counting numbers 1 through 100. The goal is adjustable: Young children can start with looking for 1-10, middle grades with 1-25.

  • You must use all four digits. You may not use any other numbers.
  • Solutions that keep the year digits in 2-0-1-7 order are preferred, but not required.
  • You may use +, -, x, ÷, sqrt (square root), ^ (raise to a power), ! (factorial), and parentheses, brackets, or other grouping symbols.
  • You may use a decimal point to create numbers such as .2, .02, etc., but you cannot write 0.02 because we only have one zero in this year’s number.
  • You may create multi-digit numbers such as 10 or 201 or .01, but we prefer solutions that avoid them.

My Special Variations on the Rules

  • You MAY use the overhead-bar (vinculum), dots, or brackets to mark a repeating decimal. But students and teachers beware: you can’t submit answers with repeating decimals to Math Forum.
  • You MAY use a double factorial, n!! = the product of all integers from 1 to n that have the same parity (odd or even) as n. I’m including these because Math Forum allows them, but I personally try to avoid the beasts. I feel much more creative when I can wrangle a solution without invoking them.

Click here to continue reading.

New Hundred Chart Game: Jigsaw Gomoku



Counting all the fractional variations, my massive blog post 30+ Things to Do with a Hundred Chart now offers nearly forty ideas for playing around with numbers from preschool to prealgebra.

Here is the newest entry:

(34) The Number Puzzle Game: Rachel created this fun cross between the hundred-chart jigsaw puzzle (#7) and Gomoku (#23). You can download the free 120-board version here or buy the complete set at Teachers Pay Teachers.

[Photo by geishaboy500 (CC BY 2.0).]

howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and you’ll be among the first to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.

A Polyhedra Construction Kit


To make a Christmas gift for her brother Leon, Alex asked all her friends to save empty cereal boxes. She collected about a dozen boxes.

She cut the boxes open, which gave her several big sheets of thin cardboard.

Then she carefully traced the templates for a regular triangle, square, pentagon, and hexagon, as shown below.


Click here to download the polygon templates

She drew the dark outline of each polygon with a ballpoint pen, pressing hard to score the cardboard so the tabs would bend easily.

She cut out shapes until her fingers felt bruised: 20 each of the pentagon and hexagon, 40 each of the triangle and square.

Alex bought a bag of small rubber bands for holding the tabs together. Each rubber band can hold two tabs, forming an edge of the polyhedron. So, for instance, it takes six squares and twelve rubber bands to make a cube.

Finally, she stuffed the whole kit in a plastic zipper bag, along with the following instructions.

Polyhedra Have “Many Faces”

Poly means many, and hedron means face, so a polyhedron is a 3-D shape with many faces.

The plural of polyhedron is polyhedra, thanks to the ancient Greeks, who didn’t know that the proper way to make a plural was to use the letter s.

Each corner of a polyhedron is called a vertex, and to make it more confusing, the plural of vertex is vertices.

Regular Polyhedra

Regular polyhedra have exactly the same faces and corners all around. If one side is a square, then all the sides will be squares. And if three squares meet to make one vertex, then all the other vertices will be made of three squares, just like that first one.

There are only five possible regular polyhedra. Can you figure out why?

Here are the five regular polyhedra, also called the Platonic solids. Try to build each of them with your construction kit.

Tetrahedron: three equilateral triangles meeting at each vertex.

Hexahedron: three squares meeting at each vertex. Do you know its common name?

Octahedron: four triangles at each vertex.

Icosahedron: five triangles at each vertex.

Dodecahedron: three pentagons per vertex.

You can find pictures of these online, but it’s more challenging to build them without peeking at the finished product. Just repeat the vertex pattern at every corner until the polygons connect together to make a complete 3-D shape.

Semi-Regular Polyhedra

Semi-regular polyhedra have each face a regular polygon, although not all the same. Each corner is still the same all around. These are often called the Archimedean polyhedra.

For example, on the cuboctahedron, every vertex consists of a square-triangle-square-triangle combination.

Here are a few semi-regular polyhedra you might try to build, described by the faces in the order they meet at each corner:

Icosidodecahedron: triangle, pentagon, triangle, pentagon.

Truncated octahedron: square, hexagon, hexagon.

Truncated icosahedron: pentagon, hexagon, hexagon. Where have you seen this?

Rhombicuboctahedron: triangle, square, square, square.

Rhombicosidodecahedron: triangle, square, pentagon, square.

Now, make up some original polyhedra of your own. What will you name them?

To Be Continued…

Read all the posts from the December 2000/January 2001 issue of my Mathematical Adventures of Alexandria Jones newsletter.

“50/52 Weeks of Teddy – Merry Christmas” photo by Austin Kirk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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How to Make a Flexagon Christmas Card


tetra-tetraflexagonHere’s how Alex created tetra-tetraflexagon Christmas cards to send to her friends:

1. Buy a pack of heavy paper at the office supply store. Regular construction paper tears too easily.

2. Measure and divide the paper into fourths one direction and thirds the other way. Fold each line backward and forward a few times.

3. Number the front and back of the paper in pencil, lightly, as shown. Then carefully cut a center flap along the dotted lines.

4. Fold the paper along the dark lines as shown, so the center flap sticks out from underneath and the right-hand column shows all 2’s.

5. Fold the flap the rest of the way around to the front and fold the right-hand column under again. (Shown as dark lines on the diagram.) This makes the front of the flexagon show 1’s in every square.

6. Carefully, tape the flap to its neighbor on the folded column. Don’t let the tape stick to any but these two squares.

7. Gently erase your pencil marks.

Find All the Faces

A tetra-tetraflexagon has four faces: front, back, and two hidden. It is shaped like a tetragon — better known as a rectangle.

Here’s how to flex your tetra-tetraflexagon card:

  • Face 1 is easy to find. It’s on top when you make the card.
  • Turn the card over to find Face 2.
  • Face 3 is hidden behind Face 2. Fold your flexagon card in half (vertically) so that Face 1 disappears. Unfold Face 2 at the middle, like opening a book. Face 3 should appear like magic.
  • Face 4 is hidden behind Face 3. Fold the card (vertically) to hide Face 2, then open the middle of Face 3. Face 2 vanishes, and Face 4 is finally revealed.

When Faces 2 and 3 are folded to the back, you will notice that any pictures you drew on them will look scrambled. What happened?

Add Your Designs

Alex wrote a holiday greeting on Face 1. Then she drew Christmas pictures on the other three faces of her card.

To Be Continued…

Read all the posts from the December 2000/January 2001 issue of my Mathematical Adventures of Alexandria Jones newsletter.

“Happy Holidays” photo by Mike Brand via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Video by Shaireen Selamat of

howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free problem-solving booklet, and you’ll be among the first to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.

Playful Family Math on Facebook


Want to help your kids learn math and enjoy it? Check out my new Facebook discussion group called Playful Family Math.

Join Playful Family Math on Facebook

This is a positive, supportive discussion group for parents and teachers — and grandparents, aunts and uncles, caregivers, or anyone else — interested in talking about math concepts and creative ways to help children learn. A place where you can ask questions, share articles about learning math, tell us your favorite math games, books and resources.

Let’s make math a playful family adventure!

howtosolveproblemsLike my playful math ideas? Claim your copy of this free problem-solving booklet, and you’ll be among the first to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.