Skip to main content

The Calculus of Happiness - Oscar Fernandez ***

There's something of the 'How to win friends and influence people' about the subtitle of this book 'How a mathematical approach to life adds up to health, wealth and love.' Big promises indeed. While I assume that there's an element of tongue in cheek about Oscar Fernandez's choice of these words, it's hard to read them and not expect this to be a book full of practical life lessons from maths - so we'll see how it does.

In three sections, Fernandez looks at ways we can use mathematics to analyse those three key areas. The first section takes on health, which is brave. I was rather surprised that a book published in 2017 didn't reflect the latest thinking on diet and health. Specifically, there's no mention of the research that reduces the distinction in health impact of saturated and unsaturated fats, there is no mention of the greater concerns about transfats, and sugar is only considered negative from its calorific content, not reflecting the far greater concerns that have been raised about it over its dietary impact. (There's also no mention of salt content or of nutritional value.) 

The trouble with this approach is that, while Fernandez gives us a sensible overview of the meaning of the numbers he chooses to focus on, it's not at all clear that these are the correct numbers to be using to practically improve our health.

We then move onto what felt to me like the most effective section of the book, where finances are covered. While the tax section only deals with the US tax system - it would have been good to have a version for at least the UK and Australia in an English language title - it still gives a feel for mathematical tax considerations, before moving on to give very effective numerical analysis for investments. The reason this felt most valuable is that it was the closest to something that could be of real use in everyday life. Not surprising, really, given that finance was one of the earliest direct applications of mathematics.

Finally, we move onto love, or at least relationships. Apart from the approach often mentioned in 'algorithm for life' type books of who to choose in a sequence of accept/reject interactions, a mechanism that feels more applicable to job interviews than love, most of this chapter seemed totally impossible to apply. Even when the information itself was quite interesting, such as Nash's bargaining problem, the mathematical approach described requires information that simply isn't available to the decision maker - to suggest that this is in some way a practical approach seems a little naive.

The author's aim was to encourage the reader to have more regard (or even to develop love) for mathematics by showing how it could be applied in these real world situations. However, the actual maths parts of the book seemed fairly dull to me (and that's as someone who isn't turned off by equations). Interestingly, and unusually, I was totally misled about the writer by his writing style, which seemed the work of someone significantly older than he actually is.

I'm afraid the combination of over-promising, under-delivering and what is often a dry presentation meant that a good sounding idea didn't always work in practice. Oh, and the Kindle edition is wildly over-priced. For a better general 'everyday applications of maths' book, take a look at Algorithms to Live By. But I'd still recommend this one if you'd like to think more mathematically about finance.


Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 

An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …