Joy of Thinking: The Beauty and Power of Classical Mathematical Ideas

Course No. 1423
Taught By Multiple Professors
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Course No. 1423
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Course Overview

Discover mathematics as an artistic and creative realm that contains some of the greatest ideas of human history. This course explores infinity, the fourth dimension, probability, chaos, fractals, and other fantastic themes.

Is it worth Bill Gates's time to pick up a $100 bill if he sees it on the sidewalk? Amidst the frenzied screaming from the audience on television's Let's Make a Deal, is there sound advice to give the contestant trying to decide whether to swi

The world of mathematics contains some of the greatest ideas of humankind—ideas comparable to the works of Shakespeare, Plato, and Michelangelo. These mathematical ideas can add texture, beauty, and wonder to your life. Most importantly, you don't have to be a mathematician to have access to this world.

A Mathematical Journey

The Joy of Thinking is a course about fun, aesthetics, and mystery—about great mathematical ideas that arise from puzzles, observations of everyday life, and habits of curiosity and effective thinking. It is as much about learning to think abstractly as it is about what we traditionally think of as mathematics.

You explore the fourth dimension, coincidences, fractals, the allure of number, and geometry, and bring these weighty notions back down to earth to see how they apply to your own life.

Rather than focusing on adding figures or creating equations (in fact, there are fewer numbers than you might expect), this course enables you to uncover and grasp insightful strategies for approaching, enjoying, and understanding the world around you.

"Wonderful ... the Best"

Taught by Professors Edward B. Burger of Williams College and Michael Starbird of the University of Texas at Austin, this course is based on their innovative textbook, The Heart of Mathematics: An invitation to effective thinking, which a reviewer for The American Mathematical Monthly called "wonderful ... possibly the best 'mathematics for the non-mathematician' book that I have seen."

Paradoxical Phenomena

Consider these examples:

  • The game show Let's Make a Deal® entertained viewers with Monty Hall urging contestants to pick a door. The choice involves a question of chance that has been the source of many heated arguments. You explore the mathematics that prepares you for future game-show stardom and explains a paradoxical example of probability.
  • Coincidences are striking because any particular one is extremely improbable. However, what is even more improbable is that no coincidence will occur. You see that finding two people having the same birthday in a room of 45 is extremely likely, by chance alone, even though the probability that any particular two people will have the same birthday is extremely low.
  • One of the most famous illustrations of randomness is the scenario of monkeys randomly typing Hamlet. Another, called "Buffon's needle," shows how random behavior can be used to estimate numbers such as pi. Physicists discovered that a similar needle-dropping model accurately predicts certain atomic phenomena.

The Fourth Dimension

Mathematical thinking leads not only to insights about our everyday lives and everyday world but also points us to worlds far beyond our own. Take the fourth dimension. The very phrase conjures up notions of science fiction or the supernatural.

Because the fourth dimension lies beyond our daily experience, visualizing, exploring, and understanding it requires us to develop an intuition about a world that we cannot see. Nevertheless, that understanding is within our reach.

You learn how to construct a four-dimensional cube and why a four-dimensional surgeon could remove your appendix without making an incision in your skin.


Or take a world that we can see: the two-dimensional realm. It can be just as rich with surprises. You learn how the simple exercise of repeatedly folding a sheet of paper introduces the concept of fractals—a geometric pattern that is infinitely complex—repeated at ever smaller scales to produce irregular shapes and surfaces that cannot be represented by classical geometry.

You discover that the paper-folding sequence offers an example of the classical computational theory of "automata," developed by Alan Turing—the father of modern computing. Fractal construction processes may also relate to the behavior of the stock market and even to your heart rate.

Life Lessons

As Professors Burger and Starbird lead you through these and other examples, you pick up some valuable life lessons:

  • Just do it. If you're faced with a problem and you don't know how to solve it, begin by taking some action.
  • Make mistakes and fail but never give up. Mathematicians are supremely gifted at making mistakes. The key is to use the insight from your mistakes to identify the features of a correct solution to your problem.
  • Keep an open mind. If we are never willing to consider new ideas, then we can never hope to increase our understanding of the world around us.
  • Explore the consequences of new ideas. This strategy pushes us to see where an idea leads and in this way to discover new ideas and insights.
  • Seek the essential. One of the biggest obstacles in solving real-world problems is the noise and clutter of irrelevant issues that surround them.
  • Understand the issue. Identifying and clarifying the problem to be solved in a situation is often a significant step in reaching a solution.
  • Understand simple things deeply. We can never understand unknown situations without an intense focus on those aspects of the unknown that are familiar. The familiar, in other words, serves as the best guide to the unfamiliar.
  • Break a difficult problem into easier ones. This strategy is fundamental to mathematics and, indeed, applicable in everyday life.
  • Examine issues from several points of view. We can, for example, gain new insights by looking at the construction of an object, rather than the object itself.
  • Look for patterns. Similarities among situations and objects that are different on the surface should be viewed as flashing lights urging us to look for explanations. Patterns help us to structure our understanding of the world, and similarities are what we use to bring order and meaning to chaos.

The Un-Math Math

This is probably not like the mathematics you had at school. Some people might not even want to call it math, but you experience a way of thinking that opens doors, opens minds, and leaves you smiling while pondering some of the greatest concepts ever conceived.

One of the great features about mathematics is that it has an endless frontier. The farther you travel, the more you see over the emerging horizon. The more you discover, the more you understand what you've already seen, and the more you see ahead. Deep ideas truly are within the reach of us all. How many more ideas are there for you to explore and enjoy? Well, how long is your life?

tch his choice to Door Number 2? How can we see the fourth dimension in a Salvador Dali painting?

These certainly aren't the kinds of questions you would normally ask in typical lectures about mathematics. But then again, this isn't an ordinary math course.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Great Ideas that Bring Our World into Focus
    A way to refine our worldview is to become more precise in describing what we see. Each of the classical theories of numbers, geometry, topology, fractals, and probability offer tools. x
  • 2
    How Many? Counting Surprises
    Numbers accompany us throughout our lives and play a fundamental role in the realm of mathematics. By counting and quantifying, we understand our world with more refinement. x
  • 3
    Fermat’s Last Theorem and the Allure of Number
    To a mathematician, numbers have their own personalities. This lecture explores the ways they have been used and understood—and have captivated humankind—through the ages. x
  • 4
    Pining for Nature’s Numbers
    We see how a hidden order of numbers actually underlies much of nature's beauty, and explore the remarkable insights available in the pattern known as Fibonacci numbers. x
  • 5
    Sizing up the Fibonacci Numbers
    A potent method for discovering new insights is to isolate and examine patterns—a process that leads us to the most pleasing proportion in art and architecture: the Golden Mean. x
  • 6
    The Sexiest Rectangle
    We investigate our newly honed sense of mathematical aesthetics to see how it illuminates the structure behind aesthetically pleasing art and architecture to arrive at a new appreciation for what is known as the Golden Rectangle. x
  • 7
    The Hidden Beauty of the Golden Rectangle
    Why, exactly, is the Golden Rectangle so visually appealing? A surprising property may hold the answer. x
  • 8
    The Pythagorean Theorem and Geometry of Ellipses
    The Pythagorean Theorem perhaps best represents all of mathematics, and we examine some of its most elegant proofs, along with the alluring relationship between the conic section and the ellipse. x
  • 9
    Not-so-Platonic Relationships in the Platonic Solids
    Symmetry and regularity lie at the heart of classical beauty. The five regular, or Platonic, solids embody not only elegant symmetry but also an elegant duality in their nature. x
  • 10
    Hunting for a Sixth Platonic Solid
    For millennia, the five Platonic solids inspired thinkers with a mystical allure. Kepler mistakenly thought they explained the orbits of the then-known planets. But planets aren't involved, as we see when we discover why there are only five Platonic solids. x
  • 11
    Is There a Fourth Dimension? Can We See It?
    Though the fourth dimension lies beyond our daily experience, understanding is within our reach, and we can visualize and explore it by using our knowledge of familiar realms and arguing by analogy. x
  • 12
    The Invisible Art of the Fourth Dimension
    We consider the geometry of the fourth dimension, beginning with artistic works inspired by dimension, then building and visualizing our own four-dimensional cube. x
  • 13
    A Twisted Idea—The Möbius Band
    Must every surface have two sides? Surprisingly, the answer is no. We explore a remarkable surface known as a Möbius band. x
  • 14
    A One-Sided, Sealed Surface—The Klein Bottle
    Though a single-sided surface with no edge at all cannot be constructed entirely in three-dimensional space, it can be effectively described and modeled, as illustrated by the elegant surface of the Klein bottle. x
  • 15
    Ordinary Origami—Creating Beautiful Patterns
    Even the act of folding a piece of paper can be the gateway to a rich trove of nuance, introducing us to the idea of fractals and showing how patterns and structure can emerge from seemingly unpredictable "randomness." x
  • 16
    Unfolding Paper to Reveal a Fiery Fractal
    Our simple paper-folding sequence leads us not only to the secrets of the dragon curve fractal, but to an example of the classic computational theory of automata developed by Alan Turing, the father of modern computing. x
  • 17
    Fractals—Infinitely Complex Creations
    What does it mean to speak of an infinitely detailed image? We look at what is possible by repeating a simple process infinitely and then reasoning about the result, producing images that illustrate the ideas of self-similarity and symmetry. x
  • 18
    Fractal Frauds of Nature
    We examine how chance, with some simple rules, leads us to an infinitely intricate world of fractals, which quite possibly overlaps with our own physical world. x
  • 19
    Chance Surprises—Measuring Uncertainty
    The uncertain and unknown are not forbidding territories into which we dare not tread. Instead, they can be organized and understood as we construct a means to measure the possibilities for an undetermined future. x
  • 20
    Door Number Two or Door Number Three?
    The game show Let's Make a Deal® involved a question of chance that surprises people to this day, and leads us to an exploration of probability and the ways we measure it. x
  • 21
    Great Expectations—Weighing the Uncertain Future
    This lecture shows us how to put a number to the possibilities of the unknowable future as it examines the quantitative measure known as expected value and how it can be used. x
  • 22
    Random Thoughts—Randomness in Our World
    Coincidences and random behavior do occur, often with predictable frequency. This lecture takes a look at randomness and how the principles of probability help us to understand it better. x
  • 23
    How Surprising are Surprising Coincidences?
    Coincidences are so striking because any particular one is extremely improbable. But what is even more improbable is that no coincidences will occur. We examine why. x
  • 24
    Life Lessons Learned from Mathematical Thinking
    This final lecture looks at 10 "lessons for life" that can be drawn from a range of mathematical themes and concepts. x

Lecture Titles

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What's Included

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Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 144-page printed course guidebook

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 144-page printed course guidebook
  • Equations & tables
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professors

Michael Starbird Edward B. Burger

Professor 1 of 2

Michael Starbird, Ph.D.
The University of Texas at Austin

Professor 2 of 2

Edward B. Burger, Ph.D.
Southwestern University
Dr. Michael Starbird is Professor of Mathematics and University Distinguished Teaching Professor at The University of Texas at Austin, where he has been teaching since 1974. He received his B.A. from Pomona College in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1974. Professor Starbird's textbook, The Heart of Mathematics: An Invitation to Effective Thinking, coauthored with Edward B. Burger,...
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Dr. Edward B. Burger is President of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. Previously, he was Francis Christopher Oakley Third Century Professor of Mathematics at Williams College. He graduated summa cum laude from Connecticut College, where he earned a B.A. with distinction in Mathematics. He earned his Ph.D. in Mathematics from The University of Texas at Austin. Professor Burger is the recipient of many teaching...
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Joy of Thinking: The Beauty and Power of Classical Mathematical Ideas is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 49.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointed Not what I expected from the reviews. Hardly any math, and too much paper cutting. The lectures on fractals was the highlight for me.
Date published: 2020-02-12
Rated 1 out of 5 by from An Old Course This course is disjointed, poorly put together, doesn't live up to its title. Presenters look at notes (no teleprompter) and have a hard time keeping the flow going. Later courses by the same presenters are well worth while. Skip this one for sure!
Date published: 2019-07-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An interesting set of topics, all well presented Some of the topics in this course I already had some knowledge of. But even in those areas I learned at least one new thing. I enjoyed the demonstrations and examples applied to each topic and I appreciated the patience that accompanied the explanations. I can see where a student with little or no knowledge of the topics covered can be rewarded with expanded understanding after taking the course.
Date published: 2017-12-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Entertaining as well as informative. The course has two instructors which gives the course pazzaz. The content is very interesting and informative.
Date published: 2017-09-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Math fun advice for life Eye opening math topics with clear examples. I enjoyed the math surprises. The applications to critical thinking would be useful tools for anyone.
Date published: 2017-06-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fun & well presented Review of course #1423 made in 2003 The Joy of Thinking 4 star , but highly recommended. Each presenter is fun to watch, good clear diction, clearly knows the subject, very enthusiastic. My background in math, statistics, computers, etc. made most of their concepts easy, fundamental , and well presented. Very good graphics to illustrate the concepts. Last lesson # 24 very good – 10 points: 1. Just do it 2. Make mistakes & fail, but never give up. 3. Keep an open mind. 4. Explore the consequences of new ideas. 5. Seek the essential. 6. Understand the issue. 7. Understand simple things deeply. 8. Break a difficult problem into easier ones. 9. Examine issues from several pints of view. 10. Look for patterns.
Date published: 2016-11-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Good Course but not a Great Course This is a good course but not a great course but I think the structure and format of this course was an experiment by The Great Courses and unfortunately, I don’t consider the experiment to be successful. This course is presented by two professors who take turns every few lectures. When the student becomes comfortable with the presentation style and pace of the first professor, the course lectures switch to the other professor and the student has to become comfortable with the presentation and pace of the second professor, When the student becomes comfortable with the presentation of the second professor, the lectures switch back to the first professor. This switching between the two professors continues for the entire course. I found this repeated switching to be distracting and frustrating resulting in a less than optimal learning experience. The Great Courses do have other courses which are taught my multiple professors. For example, “The History of the United States, 2nd Edition” is taught by three professors but in a different structure. In this course, the first part is taught by the first professor, the middle part by the second professor, and the last part by the third professor. This course is highly effective because it only has two transitions between professors instead of the 6+ transitions that occur in this Joy of Thinking course. The positive aspect of this course is the subject matter being presented. This course presents the key lessons and techniques for effective problem solving. These lessons and techniques are demonstrated with mathematics but are also applicable and effective to other problems. For example, I learned these techniques several decades ago when I was working on my undergraduate degree in Mathematics. After I graduated from college, I had very little use in my professional career for the formulas I had learned but I have had extensive usage of the problem solving techniques demonstrated in this course. These techniques are very effective and can produce viable results. I have used these techniques in my professional career to solve a variety of problems and assignments and as a result I have been awarded over 110 US Patents with a couple dozen more pending patents. Also, on the positive side of this course, this the extensive visual aids that both professors used to portray the concepts and principles that they are presenting. These visual aids encompass both graphics and physical objects. My favorite was the use of toy bunnies to illustrate the Fibonacci Numbers. This was a very creative and innovative way to present the Fibonacci Number and was a technique that I had never seen before. In summary, even though the structure of this course is not optimal, the content is highly valuable. Therefore, I still recommend this course.
Date published: 2016-07-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Would be 4.5 stars I would have given this course 4.5 stars if possible but cannot give 5. The content is generally excellent and they both tried very hard to be enthusiastic and present it well but there were two problems. While I'm sure their (very) different styles make for a refreshing read in their book the contrast is too great in a course where they alternate. A dozen lectures each would have been more palatable. I love Dr. Starbird's other courses and his style as well. But he had to try & match the over-eager Labrador retriever style of Dr. Burger and it was his undoing. It was so forced & unnatural for him that it was hard too watch. Luckily that was mostly a problem in the first lecture. After that, each lecture is taught by one or the other. That was better but it took a while for Dr. Starbird to relax more toward his own style. The second problem is Dr. Burger was just too hyper for me to watch and often too much for the camera to keep up with. I have an extensive background in math (mostly applied) but still found many useful insights and things I had forgotten. I never felt I really understood the Klein bottle until this course and this is first time I heard the background for Buffon's needle. I 'did the math' in two classes in grad school related to Buffon's needle but had no idea how it could be done. What angle do you measure? What if it doesn't touch the line, etc. I asked both professors and neither had a clue. They had only worked out the math or taught what was in the textbook. Now I have an intuitive understanding of it. I find that very valuable and don't mind a lame joke or a few moments of hesitation in a lecture that provides it. I have been fascinated by the mobius strip since I was shown one as a small boy and still found this presentation of it giving me new insights. I've done calculations in four dimensional space time but no one ever demonstrated the concepts of projection on to lower dimensional space as a prelude. That would have been invaluable. So many math classes and I could not have named the five Platonic solids. I found this course very worthwhile despite some presentation issues and especially encourage people whose math education made them hate math to try this course.
Date published: 2016-01-11
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