Myths of maths

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When we think of mathematics we tend not to think about myths. Myths are the stuff of legend and wonder, while maths is logical and has no room for doubt and error. This is certainly true, but it doesn't mean that there is no room for mythology in the study of mathematics. A mathematical truth, through retelling and a lack of some understanding, enters the public consciousness as a myth rather than a truth. This is especially the case if the story satisfies some underlying need for some order and pattern in life, the Universe, and everything. Unfortunately, it is often mathematical myths that are reported in the press and on TV, rather than the underlying truth. This is a great shame as mathematical truths are often far more exciting and surprising than any myth, and give us insight into the way Universe works.

Here are three mathematical myths. In each article we will look both at the myth and the underlying truth. We hope that we will convince you that the truth is often much stranger than fiction.

The golden ratio — The golden ration is a number with many amazing mathematical properties. But is it really a secret of nature and the epitome of beauty?

The four colour theorem — It's one of mathematics' most famous results: every "map" can be coloured using at most four colours. What it doesn't usually apply to, however, are real maps.

The Monty Hall problem — This puzzle is famous because the accepted answer is counter-intuitive. But is it always correct?

These articles are based on a talk in Chris Budd's ongoing Gresham College lecture series. Below is a video of the talk.

  • Want facts and want them fast? Our Maths in a minute series explores key mathematical concepts in just a few words.