Just a few days after getting this request for introductions to mathematics for someone with an advanced degree in a humanities field, I received another email with a similar request. I’ll just quote from it:

Do you think you might be able to suggest some books or websites, for someone who had no math aptitude, to learn math? It is a great personal sadness to me that I was never able to master the subject. The older I become the more I wish I could understand it!

I was able to do basic arithmetic as a child but became lost beginning with algebra. If there was one thing that stands out in my memory it was staring at a word problem mystified as how to solve it, or staring at an algebra problem not knowing what sort of formula one should apply to solve it. In short, I suppose my greatest liability was the inability to see patterns. I still believe that math could have been fun and challenging with the right teacher rather than overwhelming. Any suggestions on your part would be greatly appreciated!

This person has just finished graduate school in the arts, and the person’s last contact with math was “a sad dalliance” with a statistics course, which the person failed twice.

I get the sense from this email and the other one that there are actually a lot of people out there who are closet math lovers, or math-curious at least, who would like the chance to become literate in mathematics now that they’ve made it through school. That’s a far cry from the usual anti-math sentiment we math people get all the time from most people we meet.

The comments on the other post were so good, it makes sense to open the comments here for suggestions as well. Fire when ready!

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Count me in as another ignorant Liberal Arts major with deep interest and little talent.

The greatest inspiration I ever got was an Atiyah quote, which I can no longer find printed verbatim, but can only paraphrase from memory, which went something like this, “There are two ways you can learn math. One is to be smart. The other is to be dumb but very, very persistent.” It gave me hope.

It has been suggested to me on numerous occassions that I should take math courses at a university, but I estimate, given pre-existing constraints on time and lack of mental acuity, that it would take me three times longer to cover the material covered in a single semester course. Furthermore, college math courses seem not to be designed for those who wish to study a topic for its own sake but exist to serve the needs of those in business and science.

Your correspondent may find that older texts that pre-date the fad of projects and group work may be easier to use for self-study. There are several math forums and boards online in which assistance is gladly given if the poster requests help in the solution of a problem that is inadequately explained in the text.

I have two books by Gibilisco, one about electronics and the other about physics. I always liked math and never had trouble with it. I was surprised that this book got two negative reviews until I read them.

Gibilisco Math

The bad reviews are by people that need to be told how to multiply and divide. Gibilisco assumes people know that. The problem I see in the world is people don’t know how to apply math to reality. They can’t figure out when to divide and what to multiply. That is what this book is about.

I have had a PhD math teacher say that physics is mathematics. NO! The moons of Jupiter never did calculations to figure out which way to move. Newton figured out the equations that matched the physical phenomenon. If the phenomenon had worked differently he would have selected different equations.