But before I get into my examples I should also say that I am certainly not the first to coin the term pop math or popmath. (I discovered this with the very useful tool we call google.) Here is a review of some pop math books: Soft Pop Math
The first pop math that came to my mind was Sudoku. I first learned of Sudoku through Ed Peg Jr.’s article Sudoku Variations. To me these little puzzles seemed like great math games, but I didn’t think they would hold much interest to the wider public. Boy was I wrong. Sudoku is very main stream. You see it in all of the airlines’ in-flight magazines and in books at grocery store checkout lines. The popularity of Sudoku is a testament to how much people really do enjoy math if they are left alone to do it. In other words, there isn’t anyone saying “Hey, here’s how you have to do Sudoku puzzles.” Everywhere I’ve seen them they are just presented as “fill in the squares so that you have each of the nine digits in every column, row and 3 by 3 block.” You are left to sweat out the solutions for yourself, with no algorithm to follow (unless you make one up yourself. I suppose there probably are books that give some sort of algorithm, but that seems like taking all of the fun out of it to me). This is how math should be, but very different from how it is taught in school.
Of course Suduko is not the only math puzzle out there. Other solitaire games are really just math puzzles, such as mine sweeper and solitaire the card game. They contain elements of chance, yes. But probability is certainly mathematical. Throwing in randomness does not diminish the mathematical nature of anything.
Fractals are very popular, so even though they are serious math, I would call them pop math. In fact you can buy calendars featuring fractals in most book stores.
Knots have also made their way into pop culture. Businesses use them for logos all the time.
The toilet paper in my building at school has a trefoil knot on it as a logo.
Here are some puzzles from a children’s magazine to which I subscribe.
Find three pairs of matching eggs in this puzzle.
Follow the lines to find out which lucky fisherman caught the fish.
Both are pop math!
Some people will say “Fractals, knots and maybe even Sudoku I can accept as being math. But is all of this other stuff really math? Kids tracing fish lines with their fingers certainly isn’t math.” My reply is that it certainly isn’t “serious” math. But why isn’t it math? It is math. It’s pop math. It’s immersions of 1-manifolds in the plane that intersect transversely if you want to get technical. It teaches children important math skills. Just as Sudoku teaches adults and children important math skills, ones they never learned in school, such as making logical arguments: “this block needs a 5, but the only place it could go is on the bottom row so this other block can’t have a 5 on the bottom row…” The sad thing is that probably many people who do Sudoku would only admit to it being related to math because you fill the boxes in with numbers. Of course the numbers in Sudoku have nothing to do with the math of Sudoku. It’s the logic, the problem solving that is so mathematical about Sudoku.
I’d better wrap this up, so here’s my point: the term pop math has been used before, but I think it needs to be applied much more broadly, to Sudoku, Mine Sweeper, puzzles for kids and adults, etc. The real point is that people like math, they just don’t know it because they don’t know what math is!