Mathematics knows no races or geographic boundaries; for mathematics, the cultural world is one country.
I was doing
mathematics—arithmetic, at any rate—for recreation as early as age
6, although it was not until I got to junior high school that I encountered what is
generally known as recreational mathematics. It was in junior high that
I encountered a charismatic teacher, Mrs. Eunice Williams, who gathered
around her, Pythagoras-like, a group of talented math students and
infected them with her excitement and
love for mathematics. At least two students in my class eventually
became professional mathematicians, and I studied computer science in
graduate school and minored in math. In fact, when I had a rare
opportunity to take a free elective in college, I chose a linear algebra
course. In graduate school, one of my favorite courses was modern
algebra. My dissertation was in automata theory, which comes perilously
close to being a topic of recreational mathematics, which is how I
viewed it while I was still an undergraduate.
I enjoy mathematical puzzles and problems of all kinds, although I
don’t spend a lot of time working on them. Every so often, however, a
problem really engages me—particularly if it can be generalized—and
the topic becomes consuming. Working on such a project helps me
keep my mathematical skills sharp and gives me an excuse to do things
that I wouldn’t normally do in the course of more ordinary work.
It’s hard to say just what recreational mathematics is, other than
to say that it’s not professional mathematics. A professional
mathematician can do recreational mathematics, and an amateur
mathematician can do professional mathematics, and it’s sometimes hard
to determine who is doing what when. Mathematics with no
obvious “use,” particularly if it has a strong aesthetic or
brain-teaser component, is likely to be consigned to recreational
mathematics. In fact, though, even seemingly “useless” mathematics
tends to find utility eventually.
In this section of Lionel Deimel’s Farrago, you will find
discussion of topics in recreational math where I have made some small
contributions. I hope you enjoy reading these pages, and I encourage correspondence
about these and related topics.
— LED, 11/6/2017