Milo Beckman teaches readers Math Without Numbers

You ever come across a book that just looks too smart for you? That’s how I felt with Math Without Numbers by Milo Beckman. Luckily, the book explores math concepts in a friendly and accessible way. Using illustrations by M Erazo, Beckman gives an illustrated tour on what we call “math.”

Milo Beckman completed the graduate-level course sequence in mathematics at age sixteen, has written for FiveThirtyEight, helped create crosswords for The New York Times, and has written numerous academic essays.

While Debutiful has covered non-fiction before, the site has never covered anything like this. I just had to dive into Beckman’s brain and learn about what makes him tick.

Your book, simply put, is about math. But what’s it really about?

It’s kind of just a trippy illustrated tour through different abstract ideas. We’re always using these mathematical words like “infinity” and “dimension” so I wanted to put together a little guide to what mathematicians say about these things, in human language. Because I think a lot of people had a really bad experience with math in school, where it’s presented as this hurdle you have to jump over in order to graduate, and I just want to remind people that math is supposed to be fun and creative. This is the old-fashioned, sketch a diagram in the sand kind of math.

What is it about math and numbers that clicks so easily with you?

I will say, the numbers part of math actually doesn’t click so easily for me. I’m really into the concepts and the puzzly aspects of math, and I love that feeling when something finally clicks and you’re like, “Oh, wow, there it is!” But I always had this issue, when I was on math team, where I would have some really clever idea and solve a tricky problem but then botch the landing and put something like three times three is three. (Isn’t that why they invented calculators?) So that’s why it’s math without numbers.

You’ve also written for numerous outlets, including FiveThirtyEight about the 2016 election. What other areas are you interested in writing about?

I just went back to school for physics and philosophy, so after I take some time to relax post-book launch I’m hoping to move into science writing. There are a lot of fabulous science communicators out there, but I think overall there’s a real missed opportunity for science writing to be more narrative and personal, instead of textbook-lite. I’m still pretty new to this and I want to become a better writer on my own terms before I go back to publishing stuff regularly for daily outlets.

I loved getting the chance to interview people and cover political topics for FiveThirtyEight, and I’m definitely a political-minded person on my own time, but every time I write about politics I look back six months later and I’m totally humiliated that I ever thought that. So I decided to just shut up and focus on the stuff where my beliefs have been relatively consistent over time, like math and science.

This may be obtuse, but was there any time for reading fiction while you were in school? If so, what were some books that you loved?

Yes! I always try to make time for fiction. Fiction writers tend to be really incredible at putting together sentences and setting vivid scenes. I love Marilynne Robinson, Jhumpa Lahiri, Joan Didion– just sharp prose that slaps you in the face. One of my all-time favorites, I picked up The Tale of Genji from the dollar book aisle at Strand and I’ve read it like six times. It’s incredible to be transported a thousand years into the past and people are more or less the same, just gossiping about sex and politics. The Philip Pullman trilogy, the Douglas Adams books. I love magical realism but haven’t read enough to name favorites.

How about now? Any leisure reading?

This is kind of dark, but recently I’ve been disappearing into some super-dense academic histories of revolutions. I read “States and Social Revolutions” by Theda Skocpol two years ago and “The Black Jacobins” by C.L.R. James last year; I’m currently picking up and putting down “Black Reconstruction in America” by W.E.B. DuBois. These books can turn your world upside-down. It’s really powerful when the world is falling apart to remember that things have always been horrifying and miserable, that life is mostly suffering, but also that the entire structure of society can change really quickly.

I guess these don’t really count as leisure reading. To be honest, for an author, I haven’t been reading nearly as much as I used to. I made a goal at the beginning of quarantine to start a video booklog– that lasted about a week and since then I’ve been binging Drag Race and Sailor Moon.

What about books related to your field? Are there any books you can recommend to readers?

If we’re sticking to math, I really liked “Flatland” and “The Number Devil” as a kid. “1000 Playthinks” is just a giant book of puzzles that is really fantastic. “How Not To Be Wrong” is a classic. If you’re looking to roll up your sleeves and actually do some math, I don’t think anyone’s done it better than the “Art of Problem Solving” books. If you’re already fluent in math and you want an actual textbook on an interesting field, I liked “A Shorter Model Theory” and “Lessons in Play.”

Are there any more projects like this one in the works?

Yep. “In the works” is a stretch, but I have a second book outlined which I’m really excited to research and write whenever I’m ready to do this all again.

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