Mathemagicians: Princeton Teaches Students the Math Behind Magic

April 24th, 2013 No Comments Other

magical mathematicsWhat does math have to do with magic? Quite a bit as it turns out, and Princeton University’s mathematics department is giving math a fresh and creative face with its new freshmen seminar course that teaches students the mathematical principles behind games and magic tricks.

The course, titled “The Mathematics of Magic Tricks and Games,” is proving to be quite popular as it shows students that there is a whole other side to math, one that is imaginative and even enjoyable.

Princeton isn’t the first university to present its students with magical math; both Harvard and Stanford teach similar courses using the prize-winning book by mathematicians and performers Persi Diaconis and Ron Graham.

The book, Magical Mathematics: The Mathematical Ideas That Animate Great Magic Tricks, focuses primarily on card games and, more importantly, the mathematical principles that make them possible.

Every trick is accompanied by detailed step-by-step instructions and explanations, covering everything from the science of shuffling cards to what the performer should say and how the trick should be presented. Each one also introduces a new mathematical idea, making it an excellent teaching tool.

Manjul Bharva, professor of mathematics at Princeton University, designed the freshman seminar course as an enjoyable way to introduce students to a field that is often viewed as difficult and inaccessible.

Bhargava himself discovered this approach to mathematics as an undergraduate at Harvard University, where his advisor was none other than Persi Diaconis, one of the authors of “Magical Mathematics.”

It is his hope that the new freshman seminar course will encourage his students to take a more creative approach to mathematics.

He explains that the freshmen seminar is one of a student’s more formative experiences. And as such, he wants to ensure that students are shown the “correct” side of mathematics before they become seniors and lose some of their initial enthusiasm for learning.

“In grade school, mathematics is sometimes taught in a very robotic way of, here is the problem and here are the steps to solve it,” said Bhargava in a recent news feature by Princeton.

“As a result, sometimes it comes off as dry and students don’t see the imaginative aspect. This course is meant to show that math is not a robotic science at all. It is an art and has a truly creative side. That’s how mathematicians approach mathematics — creatively.”


Marianne Stenger is a London-based freelance writer and journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. She’s particularly interested in the psychology of learning and how technology is changing the way we learn. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central. Follow her on Twitter @MarianneStenger.

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