Wednesday, December 4, 2013

George Pólya's preface to the first printing of How to Solve It

A preface to Polya's preface

I'm going to admit to a personal bias here. How to Solve It was a real revelation to me when I first encountered it. The book managed, in wonderfully simple and direct language, to fully form ideas that I had been struggling to bring into focus for years. I discovered the book in my early twenties just as I was getting serious about mathematics. It significantly improved my analytic thinking. More importantly, it made me more self-aware of the process. Polya taught me (or at least, helped me start teaching myself) how to study the clockwork of the process of problem solving, to see how a good solution worked or why a bad solution didn't and how it could be fixed.

The following preface can more than stand on its own, but I do want to single out a few points, more for future reference than anything else.

1. Mathematics education should be stimulating. It should be fun and  should cultivate a lasting taste for mathematics in particular and problem solving in general;

2. Mathematics education should also cultivate intellectual self-sufficiency, teaching kids how to find their own answers;

3. When mathematics education is so boring and repetitive that it kills the curiosity, it may do more damage than good.

4. Though mathematics is usually presented as a straightforward deductive process -- A therefore B, B therefore C, C therefore D -- the actual processes of discovery are often indirect and inductive. Studying this messy half is an important part of studying mathematics.

More on all of these points soon.

Preface to the first printing
A great discovery solves a great problem but there is a grain of discovery in the solution of any problem. Your problem may be modest; but if it challenges your curiosity and brings into play your inventive faculties, and if you solve it by your own means, you may experience the tension and enjoy the triumph of discovery. Such experiences at a susceptible age may create a taste for mental work and leave their imprint on mind and character for a lifetime.

Thus, a teacher of mathematics has a great opportunity. lf he fills his allotted time with drilling his students in routine operations he kills their interest, hampers their intellectual development, and misuses his opportunity. But if he challenges the curiosity of his students by setting them problems proportionate to their knowledge, and helps them to solve their problems with stimulating questions, he may give them a taste for, and some means of, independent thinking.

Also a student whose college curriculum includes some mathematics has a singular opportunity. This opportunity is lost, of course, if he regards mathematics as a subject in which he has to earn so and so much credit and which he should forget after the final examination as quickly as possible. The opportunity may be lost even if the student has some natural talent for mathematics because he, as everybody else, must discover his talents and tastes; he cannot know that he likes raspberry pie if he has never tasted raspberry pie. He may manage to find out, however, that a mathematics problem may be as much fun as a crossword puzzle, or that vigorous mental work may be an exercise as desirable as a fast game of tennis. Having tasted the pleasure in mathematics he will not forget it easily and then there is a good chance that mathematics will become something for him: a hobby, or a tool of his profession, or his profession, or a great ambition.

The author remembers the time when he was a student himself, a somewhat ambitious student, eager to understand a little mathematics and physics. He listened to lectures, read books, tried to take in the solutions and facts presented, but there was a question that disturbed him again and again: "Yes, the solution seems to work, it appears to be correct; but how is it possible to invent such a solution? Yes, this experiment seems to work, this appears to be a fact; but how can people discover such facts? And how could I invent or discover such things by myself?" Today the author is teaching mathematics in a university; he thinks or hopes that some of his more eager students ask similar questions and he tries to satisfy their curiosity. Trying to understand not only the solution of this or that problem but also the motives and procedures of the solution, and trying to explain these motives and procedures to others, he was finally led to write the present book. He hopes that it will be useful to teachers who wish to develop their students' ability to solve problems, and to students who are keen on developing their own abilities.

Although the present book pays special attention to the requirements of students and teachers of mathematics, it should interest anybody concerned with the ways and means of invention and discovery. Such interest may be more widespread than one would assume without reflection. The space devoted by popular newspapers and magazines to crossword puzzles and other riddles seems to show that people spend some time in solving unpractical problems. Behind the desire to solve this or that problem that confers no material advantage, there may be a deeper curiosity, a desire to understand the ways and means, the motives and procedures, of solution.

The following pages are written somewhat concisely, but as simply as possible, and are based on a long and serious study of methods of solution. This sort of study, called heuristic by some writers, is not in fashion nowadays but has a long past and, perhaps, some future.

Studying the methods of solving problems, we perceive another face of mathematics. Yes, mathematics has two faces; it is the rigorous science of Euclid but it is also something else. Mathematics presented in the Euclidean way appears as a systematic, deductive science; but mathematics in the making appears as an experimental, inductive science. Both aspects are as old as the science of mathematics itself. But the second aspect is new in one respect; mathematics "in statu nascendi," in the process of being invented, has never before been presented in quite this manner to the student, or to the teacher himself, or to the general public.

The subject of heuristic has manifold connections; mathematicians, logicians, psychologists, educationalists, even philosophers may claim various parts of it as belonging to their special domains. The author, well aware of the possibility of criticism from opposite quarters and keenly conscious of his limitations, has one claim to make: he has some experience in solving problems and in teaching mathematics on various levels.

The subject is more fully dealt with in a more extensive book by the author which is on the way to completion.

Stanford University, August 1, 1944