Skip to main content

Beautiful, Simple, Exact, Crazy - Apoorva Khare and Anna Lachowska ***

This is a rare example of a book that is pretty much a textbook, but works well as entertaining educational maths for a certain section of the audience. To be honest, that's probably quite a small section - but for those it does appeal to, I can heartily recommend to it.

What the authors set out to do is to give those who aren't mathematicians or scientists a feel for how useful mathematics is in the real world. All too often, the maths we are taught at school seems strangely abstract. Okay, they might give you those irritating problems about people filling baths or meeting each other part way on a journey to make the 'numbers come to life' - but these aren't real world applications. And all too often we are just presented with, say, an abstract geometric or algebraic problem to solve and expected to get on with it, with no idea of what the point is in anything vaguely connected with normal life.

The authors assume that the reader has maths to high school algebra level, but then takes off down a whole host of application routes, such as velocities and accelerations, interest and mortgages, the strange behaviour of fractals, the benefits of being able to estimate, ciphers, probability and statistics.

Some of the problems still do seem painfully artificial - a question picked at random is 'Suppose an entire school goes on a picnic - as many boys as girls. The boys all wear jeans; a third of the girls wear skirts, and the rest wear jeans. Given that a randomly picked student is wearing jeans, what is the odds that the student is a girl.' There's no doubt that Bayes' theorem is hugely valuable in real life, but this probably isn't an application many people are going to make of it, so doesn't really fit the book's philosophy of moving away from the artificiality of ordinary textbooks.

Is it going to work? I think the main problem is finding an audience. It's too simplistic for most university science students, and it's too much of textbook to read for fun. (I'm sorry, it just feels like a textbook, and no one remembers those fondly - the eyes tend to skip off the page in protest unless you force them to continue.) So that limits the size of the popular science audience. However, if you have high school maths combined with sufficient drive to find out more about usable mathematics to go along with a textbook approach, you will find that your mathematical toolkit is impressively expanded by this title.
Paperback 
Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Tim Woollings - Four Way Interview

Tim Woollings is an Associate Professor in Physical Climate Science at the University of Oxford, leading a team of researchers in the Atmospheric Dynamics group. He obtained his PhD in Meteorology in 2005 and since then has worked on a variety of topics spanning weather prediction, atmospheric dynamics and circulation, and the effects of climate change. He has studied how the jet stream varies over weeks, years, and decades, and how we can better predict these changes. He was a contributing author on three chapters of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. Tim worked at the University of Reading as a postdoc, research fellow and then lecturer before moving to the University of Oxford in 2013. He is now the Oxford Joint Chair of the Met Office Academic Partnership. His new book is Jet Stream.

Why climate?

It has never been more important to learn about how our climate system works, and how we are affecting it. You certainly get a lot of satisfaction when your work touches on hugely important …

The Apollo Chronicles - Brandon Brown *****

There were two reasons I wasn't expecting much from this book. Firstly, there have been so many titles on the Apollo programme and the space race. And secondly, a book that focusses on the engineering involved would surely be far too much at the nut and bolt level (literally), missing out on the overarching drama that makes the story live. Also there were so many people involved - 400,000 is mentioned - that we couldn't have much human interest because we would be bombarded with lists of names.

Instead, I was charmed by Brandon Brown's account. His father was one of the engineers, but he isn't given undue prominence - Brown picks out a handful of characters and follows them through, bringing in others as necessary, but never overwhelming us with names. And while it's true that there is a lot of nitty gritty engineering detail, it rarely becomes dull. Somehow, Brown pulls off the feat of making the day-to-day, hectic engineering work engaging.

I think in part this …

Saturn – William Sheehan ****

This book marks something of a milestone in my reviewing career: it’s the first time I’ve seen an excerpt from one of my reviews printed on the back cover. It comes from my review of Sheehan’s previous book, on Mercury, which I said ‘easily convinced me the Solar System’s 'least interesting' planet is still a pretty fascinating place.’ That wasn’t an easy task for the author, given Mercury’s unspectacular appearance and reputation – but Saturn is a different matter. With its iconic rings, easily visible through a small telescope, it’s the favourite planet of many amateur astronomers. For space scientists, too, it’s a prime target – given that two of its moons, Titan and Enceladus, look like the kind of places we might find alien life. So Sheehan’s challenge this time wasn’t to find enough material to fill 200 pages, but to distil a potentially huge subject down to that size.

He meets this challenge just as successfully as the previous one – but not quite in the way I was expect…