...a companion blog to "Math-Frolic," specifically for interviews, book reviews, weekly-linkfests, and longer posts or commentary than usually found at the Math-Frolic site.

"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show." ---Bertrand Russell (1907) Rob Gluck

"I have come to believe, though very reluctantly, that it [mathematics] consists of tautologies. I fear that, to a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-legged animal is an animal." ---Bertrand Russell (1957)

******************************************************************** Rob Gluck

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Eclectic Book Wrap-up [...+ADDENDUM]

via WikimediaCommons

With holiday shopping underway I should probably go ahead and post an end-of-year book wrap-up.  Once again there were a great many popular math volumes put out in 2016, but I read fewer, and was enamored of fewer, than in prior years, so this is a bit more of a mish-mash than previous year-end posts.

Last year I greatly enjoyed several volumes, especially my top 3 picks for 2015: ”Genius At Play," "Mathematics Without Apologies," and "Single Digits”:  

This year pickings were slimmer.
Here are several books I probably would’ve enjoyed, but simply never got around to reading...:

My Search For Ramanujan   by Ken Ono and Amir Aczel

The Mathematics of Various Entertaining Subjects   eds. Jennifer Beineke and Jason Rosenhouse

The Perfect Bet   by Adam Kucharski  

What the Luck   by Gary Smith

What We Cannot Know   by Marcus du Sautoy (more philosophy/science than mathematics)

...and for the musically-inclined, From Music to Mathematics by Gareth Roberts looks interesting


Among books I did read or leaf through I enjoyed these to varying degrees:

Fluke   by Joseph Mazur

The Best Mathematics Writing of 2015  ed. Mircea Pitici (the 2016 edition will probably be out soon?)

Burn Math Class   by Jason Wilkes

The Elements of Math  by John Stillwell

The Circle    by Alfred Posamentier

Summing It Up  by  Avner Ash and Robert Gross

The Seven Pillars of Statistical Wisdom    by Stephen Stigler

The Call of the Primes   by Owen O'Shea


For the first time though I’m choosing as book-of-the-year (in popular mathematics) a volume I never even reviewed here (simply because it got soooo much buzz and so many reviews I could add nothing to its coverage)…. drumr-r-r-r-rroll ;-) .… and that is Cathy O’Neil’s, “Weapons of Math Destruction,” just a fun and informative read from start to finish on the algorithms that increasingly govern our lives — if you’re a regular reader of Cathy's blog (“Mathbabe”) then you’ll be very familiar with both her engaging writing style and much of the content of this volume.  It has some technical information in it, but is mostly an easy read for a general audience, transferring a lot of important timely information and ideas about 'Big Data' along the way. So if somehow you haven’t encountered it yet, by all means add it to your holiday shopping. It raises very important issues about the ways mathematics currently encroaches on our daily lives (and offers some solutions/reforms as well).

I’ll cite one other volume from the year for special mention, completely different from Dr. O'Neil's book. It is Barry Mazur’s and William Stein’s, “Prime Numbers and the Riemann Hypothesis.” This is not really for a mass audience, but for those with some serious math grounding and an interest in (what probably most mathematicians see as) the most important unsolved problem/proof in all of mathematics.  It’s a wonderfully slim, succinct introduction (and beyond) to the Riemann Hypothesis. The sort of book one might expect may inspire upcoming generations to assiduously tackle this long-held problem. Some young person reading this volume today or in the near future might well be the one in decades hence who finally nails down the Riemann Hypothesis (…and collects $1 million in the process).

Anyway, the two books above are great, utterly different reads for very different tastes.

So much for math. In another change from the past, I'll mention three non-math, nonfiction books that I think are so outstanding they need be recommended for any book-lover's Holiday season:

The Big Picture (physics, science, philosophy)  by Sean Carroll 
(I don’t always find Sean convincing, but do love his passion for science outreach, and his entertaining/interesting style. And this book touches on so many fascinating topic areas for discussion, it ought not be missed.) 

I Contain Multitudes (biology)   by Ed Yong
(first book from perhaps the best young science writer, mostly biology, to come along in decades)

Naked Money (economics)   by Charles Wheelan
(a fabulous overview, for a lay audience, of our complex, interconnected national and world economy)

I also scanned a number of popular physics takes this year though none grabbed me particularly. The one I'm most interested in, but haven't read yet, is Richard Muller’s “Now.”

Finally, FWIW, I’ll end this year-end mixed-bag with two of my favorite reads from the last 11 months even though they are, oddly, quite old volumes that I simply chanced upon this year:

Keith Devlin’s “The Language of Mathematics” and Alan Sokal’s “Fashionable Nonsense” (I wish Dr. Sokal would write much more than he does!)

That’s it for this year-end wrap-up [...unless something shows up in December that I want to add to it!]. Now get shoppin'!

[There were lots of math books I missed this year, so feel free to mention your own favorites and recommendations in the comments.]

ADDENDUM:  I'll add to this post as needed through December... 

1)  a new volume from British writer Brian Clegg looks good: "Are Numbers Real," another introduction to the Platonic vs. non-Platonic nature of mathematics
2)  I'm currently reading Stephen Wolfram's delightful recent compendium of anecdotes/mini-biographical notes about several important scientists/mathematicians, entitled "Idea Makers." Nice bite-sized essays.
3)  And just discovered that one of my all-time favorite reads, Noson Yanovsky's "The Outer Limits of Reason" (2013) is finally out in paperback -- a fabulous stocking-stuffer for any scientist/mathematician on your list.
4)  Daniel Levitin's latest book, "A Field Guide to Lies" looks great to me... and extremely important/timely in the new TrumpWorld we inhabit!
ADDED: I'VE JUST FINISHED THIS VOLUME on 12/30/16, and had I read it earlier it would have listed alongside Cathy's book as favorite of the year. Most of the material is not new, and has been covered elsewhere, but Levitin does a great job of bringing it together in one book in a nicely organized way. I suspect while writing it, he may not even have fully recognized how timely it would be in the current political climate.

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