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The Ten Equations that Rule the World - David Sumpter ****

David Sumpter makes it clear in this book that a couple of handfuls of equations have a huge influence on our everyday lives. I needed an equation too to give this book a star rating - I’ve never had one where there was such a divergence of feeling about it. I wanted to give it five stars for the exposition of the power and importance of these equations and just two stars for an aspect of the way that Sumpter did it. The fact that the outcome of applying my star balancing equation was four stars emphasises how good the content is.

What we have here is ten key equations from applied mathematics. (Strictly, nine, as the tenth isn’t really an equation, it’s the programmer’s favourite ‘If… then…’ - though as a programmer I was always more an ‘If… then… else…’ fan.) Those equations range from the magnificent one behind Bayesian statistics and the predictive power of logistic regression to the method of determining confidence intervals and the kind of influencer matrix so beloved of social media companies. Each is well-described with often personal examples. While it’s hyperbole to suggest that these ten equations rule the world of applied mathematics, let alone the real world, they are certainly key components of the applied mathematics toolbox.

Let me make it clear, I should have absolutely loved this book - it should have been the best book I’ve read all year. The introduction and clear explanation of these equations gives me exactly the same thrill I remember doing my Masters in Operational Research and discovering the power to do remarkable things for people and businesses that these kind of techniques bring. Wonderful. But.

The lesser problem I have with the context is that almost all of Sumpter’s big examples of applications in the world were either trivial (in sports or games, for example) or morally dodgy, such as betting, stock market trading or social media and advertising manipulation of people. Sumpter suggests at one point that though these tools can be used for good or evil, those who use them are mostly on the side of the angels - it hardly seems to be the case with the examples he uses.

The bigger problem is that Sumpter frames all this with applied mathematicians being described as members of TEN, a secret illuminati-style set of people who rule the world through their ability to understand and make use of these equations. This comes across as both silly and intensely smug - I really don’t think it does anything to win across those for whom any equation is a turn-off. Instead it just underlines any existing prejudice.

The frustrating thing is that Sumpter makes passing reference to lots of real research with positive implications where these approaches are taken - but all his big stories are about things like sports betting which hardly comes across as a positive thing to do. The downside of the smugness is that it’s difficult not to look for opportunities to turn some of his comments against him. So, for example, he criticises 60 to 69 year olds who criticise Greta Thunberg for damaging the environment by flying off on holiday without pointing out that academics like Sumpter are always jetting off around the world to conferences - a touch of the glass houses equation required there.

This was truly a hard review to write. I really like David Sumpter’s work and looked forward to reading this book as soon as I saw it. Somehow it manages to be excellent and an opportunity missed all at the same time.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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