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What Is Mathematics? An Elementary Approach to Ideas and Methods 2nd Edition

62 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195105193
ISBN-10: 0195105192
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Editorial Reviews Review

A 1996 revision of a timeless classic originally published in 1941. Highly recommended for any serious student, teacher or scholar of mathematics.


*Praise for the previous edition:

"Without doubt, the work will have great influence. It should be in the hands of everyone, professional or otherwise, who is interested in scientific thinking."--The New York Times

"Should prove a source of great pleasure and satisfaction."--Journal of Applied Physics

"Succeeds brilliantly in conveying the intellectual excitement of mathematical inquiry and in communicating the essential ideas and methods."Journal of Philosophy

"It is a work of high perfection, whether judged by aesthetic, pedagogical or scientific standards. It is astonishing to what extent What is Mathematics? has succeeded in making clear by means of the simplest examples all the fundamental ideas and methods which we mathematicians consider the life blood of our science."--Herman Weyl

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 2 edition (July 18, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195105192
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195105193
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 1 x 6.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #35,506 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

211 of 218 people found the following review helpful By Michael Wischmeyer on August 3, 2003
Format: Paperback
Courant's 500-page text is not entirely suitable for the layman. Its target audience includes those who enjoy reading and studying mathematics and have a good background through precalculus or higher. "What is Mathematics?" is a mathematics book, not a book about mathematics.

"What is Mathematics?" is not a new book. It was first published by Oxford University Press in 1941 with later editions in 1943, 1945, and 1947. Good quality soft cover copies are still in print as Oxford Paperbacks.

The authors indicate that it is no means necessary to "plow through it page by page, chapter by chapter". I fully agree. I have skipped around, jumping to chapters of particular interest, but I have now read nearly every chapter.

I initially skipped to page 165 and delved directly into projective geometry (chapter IV), proceeded to topology (chapter V), and then jumped backwards to the beginning to explore the theory of numbers. After moving to geometry, I finally returned to the later chapters on functions and limits, maxima and minima, and the calculus.

Courant engages the reader in discussions on mathematical concepts rather than focusing on applications and problem solving. "What is Mathematics?" is a great textbook for students that have completed a year or more of calculus and wish to pull all of their mathematical learning together before moving on to more advanced studies. I suspect that it would even be welcomed by students that have completed an undergraduate degree in mathematics.

I cannot resist quoting Albert Einstein's comment on What is Mathematics? - "A lucid representation of the fundamental concepts and methods of the whole field of mathematics...Easily understandable."

Richard Courant was a highly respected mathematician.
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106 of 107 people found the following review helpful By twit on April 20, 2005
Format: Paperback
This book genuinely has more mathematical content, for around $15-$25, than most, maybe all, "bridge" texts for college math majors, costing 5 or 10 times as much.

This book was written by a master, for an intelligent person knowing only 1950's style high school mathematics (some trig, algebra, and geometry).

When I fiorst tried to read it as a youngster however I was not used to books that required actually thinking about each statement, before proceeding to the next. Hence I could not read it at the pace I thought normal.

So this is not a breezy read, but is an outstanding one. It has literally no competitor to my knowledge at the present time, in quantity of material, quality of material, and quality of exposition.

Even experts may learn something here about the most familiar topics. E.g. in presenting the proof of the well known fact that all integers greater than one have unique prime factorizations, the authors show how a clever use of induction avoids developing the characterization of a gcd, which usually precedes this theorem. I had never seen that before.

If you are looking for a miracle book that treats the reader like a baby, and still covers calculus, this is not it. But if you have the prerequisites of a good high school course of elementary math, and are willing to spend time on the arguments, there is no better book for beginners and intelligent laypersons.
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76 of 79 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 23, 1999
Format: Paperback
Although I was always good in math in high school, I never really appreciated it. One summer I found this book in a dusty little corner of a bookshelf and I started reading it. I still remember how for the first time, I was inspired by the subject while reading this book. I couldn't stop reading it, until I finished it. At the time, I didn't really know Calculus or any advanced subject and I had never read any math books other than the high school textbooks. This book literally changed my life. I might have forgotten who my first love was, but I remember very well this book after 25 years!
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40 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Ary Armando Perez Jr. on June 23, 2000
Format: Paperback
If you start to read "What is Mathematics?" in order to find a direct answer to the title's issue, forget it! I would like to adapt a piece of "My Brain is Open", by Bruce Schechter, in the following way: "Asking a mathematician to explain exactly what is mathematics is a little like asking a poet what a poem is, or a musician what jazz is. Asked this last question, Louis Armstrong replied, `Man, if you gotta ask, you'll never know.'" On the other hand, if you start to read just to go deeper and deeper in the beautiful, and sometimes magic, structure of Math than I say: Go ahead! Because this book is a perennial source of pleasure. Of course it demands a lot of work to solve some of its problems (at least for me!), but as Courant says, you cannot learn music only by listening! I have reproduced almost all the calculations of this book and I know that it demands a lot of effort, but it is one of the few books I know where each small piece of calculation has its own reward! This book is my definition of perfect guide to Math style! Try it!
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60 of 64 people found the following review helpful By Palle E T Jorgensen VINE VOICE on April 15, 2003
Format: Paperback
Einstein writes..."Easily understandable." And Herman Weyl,..."It is a work of high perfection." It is both for
beginners and for scholars. The first edition by Courant and Robbins, has been revised, with love and care, by Ian Stewart.
Of the sciences, math stands out in the way some central ideas and tools are timeless. Key math ideas from our first mathematical experiences, perhaps early in life, often have more permanence this way. While the fads do change in math, there are some landmarks that remain, and which inspire generations. And they are as useful now as they were at their inception, the fundamentals of numbers, of geometry, of calculus and differential equations, and more. Much of it is presented with an eye to applications. The book is a classic and a masterpiece. The co-authors are ambitious (and remarkably sucessful)in trying to cover the essetials within the span of 500 plus pages. You find the facts, presented in clear and engaging prose, and with lots of illustrations. The book has been used by generations of readers, and it still points to the future.
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