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.

Hardback:  

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

Bodyology - Mosaic Science ****

It's a good sign when you pick up a book intending to read one chapter and end up reading three. It's very moreish. This is because it's made up of short, self-contained articles, originally published on a website. Often an edited collection of articles by different authors suggests a boring read, but here the articles are good pieces of journalism with plenty to interest the reader.

The topics are all vaguely human body related, but thankfully not all medical (not my favourite subject) - so, for example, as well as stories of a person cured of Lyme disease by bee stings or a piece on miscarriages we get topics like the effects on the body of being struck by lightning or falling from a high place. Even some more explicitly health-related matters, such as the impact of losing your sense of smell, were engaging enough to get me past my medical squeamishness.

The only reason I can't give the collection five stars is because of one aspect of the writing style that runs throu…