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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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