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.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Shadow Captain (SF) - Alastair Reynolds *****

One again, Alastair Reynolds demonstrates his mastery of complex world building. This is a sequel to Revenger, but while it's ideal to have read that first, I didn't feel a huge loss from not having done so. (But I'll be going back to read it.)

What sets these books apart is the richness of the setting. The Ness sisters, Adrana (the narrator of the book) and Arafura, along with their small motley crew, sail their spaceship through a far future solar system, where the planets have long since been dismantled to produce millions of small habitats and storage asteroids known as baubles. The civilisation in the system has risen and fallen many times, leaving mysterious technology (and contact with some low grade aliens) in a scenario that mixes high tech with a setting that is strongly (and intentionally) reminiscent of the world of seventeenth century shipping.

Spaceships are primarily powered by vast acreage of solar sails, privateers hunt bounty from the baubles and even th…