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Mathematicians on Creativity

Peter Borwein, Peter Liljedahl, and Helen Zhai, editors
Mathematical Association of America
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
BLL Rating: 

The Basic Library List Committee suggests that undergraduate mathematics libraries consider this book for acquisition.

[Reviewed by
Kelli M. Slaten
, on

Most students and professors of mathematics are able to identify well-known mathematicians and their work. Few, however, are aware of the diversity of thought processes involved in the development of mathematical ideas. Mathematicians on Creativity contains quotes from prominent mathematicians about the ways they approach their work. The chapters are designated by the letters of the alphabet and contain quotes from mathematicians whose last names correspond to that letter. The appendices include the survey questions, biographies of the mathematicians quoted in the text, and the source of each quote.

Building on survey results from prominent mathematicians of the mid-twentieth century and published by Jacques Hadamard (1945), the editors re-tooled several of the questions from the original survey and queried current prominent mathematicians. The focus of the survey was to elicit the factors which contributed to the successes of these mathematicians, rather than their failures in mathematics. The mathematicians included in the book all contributed to fields classified as higher-level mathematics. Several historical mathematicians are also quoted, but the quotes are from previously published commentary rather than survey responses.

This book is designed for browsing. Reading in this manner is a delightful use of time, often revealing some surprising insight into how these mathematicians approach their practice. At first I looked for quotes by mathematicians who are familiar to me. Some quotes left me wanting to read more, however, which necessitated finding the corresponding resource. Upon reading quotes from mathematicians I did not know, I wanted to know more about them and had to turn to the appendix to read the associated biography. It would be easier for the reader if the biographies were listed with the mathematicians along with the quotes.

I shared the book with several colleagues who enjoyed looking up quotes by mathematicians in their own fields. Several, however, were disappointed if a particular mathematician of interest was not included. I also incorporated the use of several quotes into my own teaching of mathematics and found students were very interested to learn how different mathematicians approached their craft. The quotes and mathematicians included in this book provide a glimpse into the range of perspectives involved in the creation of mathematics. Thus, the book could be enlightening for students of mathematics, mathematics professors, and others interested in a humanistic presentation of mathematical productivity.

Kelli M. Slaten ( is an Associate Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her current interests include the history of mathematics and student writing in mathematics. 

The table of contents is not available.