The Elements of Recreational Maths

by Sara Vazquez Shaw

Maths can be fun! The field of mathematics has many aspects and countless applications. Anyone in a mathematical field will likely agree that maths is fun, but others may be hesitant to agree with such a statement. These others probably aren't thinking about recreational maths when they disagree with the idea of maths being fun; some of them may not even recognise recreational maths as truly being mathematics.

Mathematics Professor David Singmaster of South Bank University in London offers his interpretation of recreational mathematics in an essay titled, The Unreasonable Utility of Recreational Mathematics. Singmaster writes that recreational mathematics is maths that is fun and popular and used in one of two ways: "either as a diversion from serious mathematics or as a way of making serious mathematics understandable or palatable." By "understandable," Singmaster means that the problems in recreational maths should be easy enough for an "interested layman" to comprehend. "Palatable" means that the problems should be enjoyable and attractive.

Math Lair calls recreational maths a hobby that involves games or puzzles that relate to mathematics. Instead of employing advanced mathematical concepts, recreational maths makes use of general logic and lateral thinking so that all people can enjoy it. Logical thinking is way of determining the validity of information, while lateral thinking is a method of solving problems by viewing them in new and creative ways as opposed to traditional logic.

Author Vera Sanford determined that recreational maths could be divided into two main categories: "those that depend on object manipulation and those that depend on computation." A popular example of a recreational maths problem that would be classified under the object manipulation category is a Rubik's cube. One that would fit into the computation category is a Sudoku puzzle.

Singmaster notes that recreational maths is a very old concept. There is evidence of ancient cultures such as the Egyptians, Chinese, Sumerians, Greeks, and others engaging in recreational maths. Singmaster writes that these ancient problems seemed to hold a practical connection to daily life for these peoples and thusly concludes that they must have been used as diversions or recreations.

While it may seem to be all fun and games, the Math Lair site notes that recreational maths can increase a person's appreciation of maths in general and has even stimulated developments in several fields of mathematics.

Singmaster gives recreational math credit for advancements in the following fields: algebra, number theory, topology, and geometry. He also indicates that recreational maths has been a major stimulus for the development of subjects like graph theory and probability.

Most sources agree that recreational maths is meant to be a diversion for serious mathematicians and fun for the everyday person, as opposed to being practical problems that have connections to real world issues. However, they also agree that recreational maths holds value to the advancement of mathematics as a whole.