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Mathematics of Life – Ian Stewart ****

Although there are a fair number of maths books by popular science writers, like our editor’s A Brief History of Infinity, or one-off books by mathematicians there are very few popular maths writers with a sizeable output. Leader of that very small pack is the highly productive Ian Stewart, mild mannered maths professor by day, popular maths writer by night.
The premise of this book is almost one of conquest. Mathematics has had a central role in most of science throughout the ages. Galileo made it clear that maths was at the heart of science. But mostly biology has avoided it. There’s no doubt which aspect of science Rutherford most had in his sights when he came up with his famous put-down ‘All science is either physics or stamp collecting.’ The fact is that for most of its life, biology has been about collecting and classifying, with very little real science involved. But of course things have changed an awful lot now – and that includes the increasing use of mathematical techniques in the science.
Oddly, Stewart is by far at his best in his introductory chapters (and parts of other chapters) where he does a whistle stop tour of the history of biology and introduces us to all the basics of the science. This might be a bit simplistic for a real biologist, but for those among us who only have a vague memory of biology from school science it is fascinating and pitched just right. And, of course, there is plenty of biology, like the human genome project, that wasn’t around when most of us were at school. Again, Stewart incisively dissects the genome project and the reason why this hasn’t transformed medicine as was promised very effectively.
What works less well is the mathematical parts. In some of his books Stewart excels at making maths interesting to the layperson, but here it is not so good. There are aspects of mathematics here, like knot theory, that only mathematicians could get excited about. And despite Stewart’s assertion that biology has entered a new era with maths at its heart, the mathematics often seemed peripheral to the science.
This is a book that’s well worth reading, particularly for the introduction to biology, but also for some of the interesting ways that maths has been used in the field (for example in deducing the ‘wiring’ required to produce the different gaits of animals) – but it would have been even better if a non-mathematician had weeded out some of the less interesting bits.

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Review by Peter Spit

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