Harvey coauthors an illustrated math book for all ages

Matthew Harvey

A graduate school friend asked UVA Wise Professor Matthew Harvey to work with him on a colorful book—think “The Hungry Caterpillar”— about unsolved math problems. Harvey considered it and decided to give it a try.

“We knew each other from graduate school,” Harvey said of Satyan Devadoss. “We had the same advisor and had kept in touch off and on since then. When Satyan first pitched the idea to me, he described a colorful board book about unsolved math problems.”

He asked Harvey to work with him because both think of math in a visual way.

“It seemed like a crazy idea, but I decided to give it a shot,” Harvey said. “It took us a long time to figure out a way to make it work.”

The friends penned a math book that appeals to readers of all ages, especially middle and high school students, and it is getting great reviews for its unique approach and its vivid illustrations.

“Mage Merlin’s Unsolved Mathematical Mysteries” is the creation of Harvey and Devadoss. It offers 16 unsolved mathematical problems as puzzles for readers to enjoy. A review in Forbes calls the 16 riddles captivating.

“The basic mathematical ideas have been elegantly reframed into captivating puzzles like Lancelot’s Labyrinth, “The Great Hall Window, and Round Table Tiles, and that involve solving simple physical puzzles like gift wrapping a package, perfectly slicing a cake at a festival, and designing a mirrored vault for the Holy Grail,” the review in Forbes states.

Harvey and Devadoss crafted the book to make each puzzle easy to understand with what the reviewer called “basic mathematical knowledge”, and the illustrations also make it easy for readers to understand.

Harvey is pleased and a bit surprised by the solid reviews. His surprise comes from the nature of the unconventional book.

“We weren’t sure how it would be received,” Harvey said.

The authors knew the illustrations would be key. Harvey said mathematics has a lot of illustrations but most are precise but bland. Harvey knew their book needed more.

“We were committed to retaining the precision, but otherwise to push the boundaries of what a mathematics illustration could be,” he said. “We developed the illustrations in tandem with the story.”

They passed rough sketches back and forth and when they reached consensus, Harvey drafted it in Adobe Illustrator and they tweaked it when needed.

When asked what he hopes the readers take away from spending time with the puzzles in the book, Harvey stressed that math is not done.

“Mathematicians do a good job of touting our successes, like the many questions that were answered with the discovery of calculus,” Harvey said. “Because of that, I think that a lot of people think of math as a completed subject. I hope our readers come to realize that math is not done, and that many seemingly elementary questions remain unanswered. In many ways, we are still children when it comes to understanding numbers and shapes, and it is wonderful that there is still so much to discover.”

The book is available on Amazon.