Skip to main content

Applied Mathematics - a very short introduction - Alain Goriely ***

This little book in Oxford University Press's vast, ever-expanding 'A Very Short Introduction' series starts off with a very positive note. After a quote from Groucho Marx, Alain Goriely takes us on a jovial tour of what 'applied mathematics' means. I was slightly surprised it needed such an introduction. It seems fairly obvious that it's mathematics that is, erm, applied, rather than maths for maths' sake. However, in the process Goriely gives us some of the basics involved. 

One thing I would have liked to have seen, but didn't get, was more of an exploration of the boundary between applied maths and theoretical physics. (Cambridge even has a 'Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics'.) I appreciate that some applied mathematics is used in other disciplines, but it does seem that the bulk of it is in physics, and the distinction between what an applied mathematician and a theoretical physicist does seems fairly fuzzy, to say the least.

After the introduction, Goriely starts with simple applications, such as working out the cooking time for a turkey, through more and more complex uses, gradually adding in more powerful mathematics. Although you don't need to know how to use the heavier duty tools, you will meet differential equations and even partial differential equations along the way. The trouble with familiar applications, of course, is that it's easy to get lost in the reality of it, which left me worrying for Goriely's health. He reckons a 5 kg turkey cooks in 2.5 hours, where Delia Smith (who surely knows better) would give it at least 4 hours. I'm with Delia on this.

There's some really good material here on the use of dimensions and scaling, but already the way the information is presented is becoming quite difficult to absorb. Not surprisingly there are equations - but they are used far too liberally, while technical terms are introduced often without explanation, or with explanations that don't really work. We move on to mathematical modelling and solving equations. Once again, simply following the argument is difficult without already having a reasonable grasp of at least A-level maths.

There are all sorts of good things covered in the book, from knot theory (and its relevance to DNA) to JPEG compression. It's just a shame that, either because the book is so short, or because the author expects too much of the reader, the information in it is not presented in a way that is particularly accessible.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

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 …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…