Skip to main content

Humble Pi - Matt Parker ****

Matt Parker had me thoroughly enjoying this collection of situations where maths and numbers go wrong in everyday life. I think the book's title is a little weak - 'Humble Pi' doesn't really convey what it's about, but that subtitle 'a comedy of maths errors' is far more informative.

With his delightful conversational style, honed in his stand-up maths shows, it feels as if Parker is a friend down the pub, relating the story of some technical disaster driven by maths and computing, or regaling us with a numerical cock-up. These range from the spectacular - wobbling and collapsing bridges, for example - to the small but beautifully formed, such as Excel's rounding errors.

Sometimes it's Parker's little asides that are particularly attractive. I loved his rant on why phone numbers aren't numbers at all (would it be meaningful for someone to ask you what half your phone number is?). We discover the trials and tribulations of getting calendars right, explore some of the oddities of probability, enjoy a bit of impossible geometry and see how getting units right (or wrong) can make all the difference. Of course there are the big stories, from NASA disasters to the risks of trying to crash onboard systems on planes mid-flight. But it's often those little details like the phone numbers that tickled me. I loved, for example, Parker's attempts to get the footballs on UK signs geometrically correct - totally misunderstood by the bureaucracy - or when Parker points out the problems of graphics featuring multiple cogs interlocked with each other in a way that will lock them solid - not to mention his combinatorial struggles with the McDonald's McChoice menu.

The only thing I did find - and this is the only reason the book doesn't get five stars - is that the final couple of chapters seemed a little samey. Rather than save the best to last, Parker resorts to revisiting rather familiar feeling computer problems, which are interesting (but perhaps more to me, with a background in computing, than many readers), but by now not quite as original and fresh feeling.

However, this is an excellent read, managing to be light and meaty at the same time, and highly recommended for anyone interested in maths, business or computing.

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

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 …

Six Impossible Things - John Gribbin *****

On first handling John Gribbin's book, it's impossible not to think of Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons in Physics - both are very slim, elegant hardbacks with a numbered set of items within - yet Six Impossible Things is a far, far better book than its predecessor. Where Seven Brief Lessons uses purple prose and vagueness in what feels like a scientific taster menu, Gribbin gives us a feast of precision and clarity, with a phenomenal amount of information for such a compact space. It's a TARDIS of popular science books, and I loved it.

Like rather a lot of titles lately (notably Philip Ball's excellent Beyond Weird), what Gribbin is taking on is not the detail of quantum physics itself - although he does manage to get across its essence in two 'fits' (named after the sections of Hunting of the Snark - Gribbin includes Lewis Carroll's epic poem in his recommended reading, though it's such a shame that the superb version annotated by Martin Gardi…

Elizabeth Bear - Four Way Interview

Elizabeth Bear won the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer in 2005 and has since published 15 novels and numerous short stories. She writes in both the SF and fantasy genres and has won critical acclaim in both. She has won the Hugo Award more than once. She lives in Massachusetts. Her latest title is Ancestral Night.

Why science fiction?

I've been a science fiction fan my entire life, and I feel like SF is the ideal framework for stories about humanity and how we can be better at it. Not just cautionary tales - though there's certainly also value in cautionary tales - but stories with some hope built in that we might, in fact, mature as a species and take some responsibility for things like reflexive bigotry and hate crimes (as I'm writing this, the heartbreaking news about the terrorist attack on Muslim worshipers in Christchurch is everywhere) and global climate destabilization. These are not intractable problems, but we need, as a species, the will to see that we …