Skip to main content

A Most Elegant Equation - David Stipp ****

Aside from E = mc2, there is no other mathematical formula that has had more books dedicated to it than Euler's equation, e +1 = 0. In some ways it's not surprising - like Einstein's equation, Euler's is simple, yet combines essential quantities in a way that surprises and has interesting uses.

Not long ago I read Robin Wilson' Euler's Pioneering Equation, which started really well with some good history of maths on the main components of the equation, but then became too complex for the typical non-mathematician. I'm pleased to say that David Stipp in A Most Elegant Equation doesn't fall for this same trap. This book remains easily readable throughout. 

Stipp also takes us through a little of the background to the main components of the equation (though in a far more summary fashion for 1 and 0). It would have been nice to have had a little more history of maths to round out these introductions - as it was, what you get is plenty to understand e or i, for example, but a little more context would have been pleasing. One thing he does do well here, though, is give us some nice biographical detail on Euler himself.

Where Stipp triumphs, though, is continuing to make the whole process accessible as we discover where the equation comes from and what it (and the more generalised version of the equation) is capable of doing for oscillating values such as waves. Stipp takes us through step by step from the basics of definitions of i and sines and cosines, through the use of radians and the way that the complex plane combined with the rotational interpretation of sine and cosine make this approach so powerful. (If any of that doesn't make sense, it will after you've read this book).

If anything, the approach taken is almost too simplified - taking the time, for instance, step by step to explain even something as simple as why x+1=0 is the same as x=-1. But those who remember their high school maths can skip a little. My only other small complaint is that Stipp tries relentlessly to be funny. Sometimes this works fine, but at other times it can feel a little laboured. Having said that, I can forgive a lot of someone whose longest footnote is an exposition of why Mr Spock's emotional responses are more nuanced than they seem. (Yes, there is a reason for this.)

To get a picture of why so many mathematicians and physicists think this equation is beautiful, what the equation does and what lies beneath it, A Most Elegant Equation is hard to beat. There's even a section looking at why a few rebels think the equation is rather boring... and what's wrong with their assertion. I'm not saying this book will make every maths-hater suddenly decide the topic is fascinating. But for anyone who is puzzled by mathematicians talking about beauty, or who knows enough to be surprised at the way these disparate quantities come together without having the mathematical background to explain it, this will make a short but sweet read.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…