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Mathematical myths, legends and inaccuracies: some examples

I’m teaching a first-year module on the history of mathematics for undergraduate mathematicians this term. In this, I’m less concerned about students learning historical facts and more that they gain a general awareness of history of maths while learning about the methods used to study history.

Last week, I decided I would discuss myths and inaccuracies. Though I am aware of a few well-known examples, I was struggling to find a nice, concise debunking of one. I asked on Twitter for examples, and here are the suggestions I received, followed by what I did.

Maths and Magic on BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4 put out a rather nice 30-minute documentary on the links between maths and magic recently. In Maths and Magic, Jolyon Jenkins explains a couple of simple algebraic ‘mind-reading’ tricks, before talking to various magicians and mathematicians in search of a mathematical trick that doesn’t ‘look’ mathematical. Regular readers of this site will recognise a few of the mathematicians featured in the programme.

I’m now a bit miffed that I managed to miss Jolyon at the big MathsJam in November, because the trick he ends with is the easy version of the de Bruijn trick that David and I made better last year.

Listen: Maths and Magic on BBC Radio 4.

We’ll be back after these messages

Some news from the world of capitalism: various maths people have things you can spend money on. Our roving reporters investigate.

Maths on Screen DVDsmaths on screen


Maths Inspiration, a maths theatre show which has been touring the country for a few years providing large-scale theatre shows for GCSE and A-Level students, has now released a set of DVDs of a special series of talks, which were filmed earlier this year.