Friends, mathletes, number nerds, lend me your ears.
While the brilliance of TED Talks are nothing new, it can be hard, even in intellectual circles, to find people willing to talk about math for an extended period of time. This is despite the fact that numbers rule the world and are the language of the universe and quite possibly time immortal.
Thankfully, we’ve collected here 10 awesome TED Talks that focus exclusively on numbers and the variety of ways they can be used in real life. From global and economic growth to mastering a really good hand of poker, here are the experts in their element, all of them praising the power of math.
1: The Mathematics of History – Jean-Baptiste Michel
Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but those who don’t understand the patterns might be just as screwed. In this quick four-minute talk, Jean-Baptiste Michel reveals just how much of the past can be understood and even predicted through the lens of numbers. From the decline of ancient civilizations to the body count of long-ago wars, there are definite mathematical movements to history, and under Michel’s tutelage you can learn to see them too.
2: Stats That Reshape Your Worldview – Hans Rosling
Do you know anything about world distributions of income? How about child mortality rates in developing nations? Hans Rosling does, and he put together an incredible presentation that will blow your mind just as surely as it’ll change your idea of reality. From health and economic trends around the world to global development as a whole, Rosling takes you on a journey of numbers that proves once and for all that statistics are vital to everyday life. Speaking of which…
3: Teach Statistics Before Calculus! – Arthur Benjamin
This talk is for every college student who ever found themselves frustrated or limited by their math department. With numerical evidence, Arthur Benjamin lays out exactly how our educational system is broken and why statistics, that often-ignored summer course, should be prioritized over calculus and other higher math. He also proposes a way to revolutionize the way mathematics are currently taught in schools. Teachers, students, bitter math majors: You won’t want to miss this.
4: Feats of Memory Anyone Can Do – Joshua Foer
Sure, you’ve memorized pi to a thousand digits, but did you remember to pick up the milk? Joshua Foer, author and 2006 winner of the U.S. Memory Championship, shows us how to construct a “memory palace” capable of holding everything from playing card decks to long lists to raw numbers. By the time he’s done with you, you’ll be able to pick up any woman in the bar who just so happens to be impressed with your knowledge of the brain’s spatial and navigation systems and its reaction to mnemonic tricks.
5: The Quantified Self – Gary Wolf
Drape yourself in numbers with this presentation from Gary Wolf. A passionate technology advocate, Wolf makes the argument that we should all be using smartphones and other on-the-body gadgets to better monitor and therefore understand ourselves. Our moods, diets and spending habits can all be crunched into raw data, and that data can then be used to make everything from fitness goals to monthly budgets. According to Wolf, the numbers here aren’t just nice, they’re absolutely necessary.
6: What Physics Taught Me About Marketing – Dan Cobley
What does Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle have to do with marketing? Quite a lot, actually, at least according to Dan Cobley. Formerly a physics major, Cobley is now an advertising hotshot who sees real-world marketing problems through a filter of physics. In this TED Talk he walks us through some basic examples of how we can apply everything from Newton’s numbers to the laws of thermodynamics to better help us market ourselves and our businesses. If you’re a struggling entrepreneur or self-starter, this talk is a must-see.
7: Turning Powerful Stats Into Art – Chris Jordan
Have you ever visualized just how many paper cups we use every day? How about many prison uniforms it would take to represent the current number of incarcerated individuals in the U.S.? Using a variety of pop-art techniques and dramatic zooming skills, Chris Jordan takes us out of the realm of guesswork and into the world of real, factual statistics, one piece of artwork at a time.
8: Different Ways of Knowing – Daniel Tammel
An autistic savant, Daniel Tammel sees the world differently than we do, and in this TED Talk he allows us a dazzling glimpse into the inner workings of his unique mind. With visual, linguistic and numerical synesthesia, words and numbers collide in unexpected ways and a color is never just a color. The good news is that all this brilliance isn’t just a spectator sport; Tammel is willing to share how his mind makes certain leaps and how you can use intuition for a better mastery of your environment. It’s a fascinating talk and an even better brain exercise.
9: The Mathematics of War – Sean Gourley
It’s a sobering subject, but one worth discussing. Physics whiz Sean Gourley has turned his considerable intellect to the math behind Iraq and other large-scale conflicts, and his findings may surprise you: There is, for example, a definite link between the fatality of attacks and the frequency of them. But what does this mean for countries currently at war, and how can we use this information to save our own soldiers? Listen and find out.
10: Mathemagic – Arthur Benjamin
According to Arthur C. Clarke, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and it turns out that this applies to math, too. In a dazzling display of numbers, Arthur Benjamin will knock your socks off in everything from math races to mental equation-solving and the accurate guessing of birthdays. The secret, of course, is that he isn’t guessing at all: He’s calculating. This is the power of math, and while watching Mathemagic it will stun you too.