...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

Friday, November 24, 2017

Books… Year-end Review

Black Friday has arrived so time for some end-of-year stocking-stuffer book recommendations:

My two favorites for the year were “The Mathematics Lover’s Companion” by Edward Scheinerman and “Foolproof” by Brian Hayes. I’m a sucker for what I call “buffet” books (that cover several different topics briefly, instead of focusing on a single theme), and these both fall in that category. Even though Scheinerman’s book covered mostly well-worn topics in math I really enjoyed his writing and approach. Despite topping my own list, I didn't see the volume get a lot of publicity, and suspect that is only because the publisher, Yale University Press, may not spend much time/effort on promotion. I definitely recommend it, especially for young up-and-coming math enthusiasts and teachers.
Brian Hayes’ book is as well, a sort of “buffet” of more quirky, unpredictable topics (essays he had previously written), given Hayes’ excellent analytical treatment. Your ‘mileage may vary’ but I have to believe most math lovers will enjoy these two selections, covering a variety of topics, that top my picks.
The rest of the mentions I’ll list in no particular order…

More “buffet” offerings arrive via Mircea Pitici’s “Best Writing on Math” series. This year we actually got two from him, with “The Best Writing on Mathematics in 2016” showing up early in the year and the 2017 edition appearing recently. Pitici’s selections are always so broad and varying that in addition to the pieces I really enjoy there are always some others I don’t care for, making it hard for him to compete with my top two choices. But so glad he’s there offering this smorgasbord year-after-year.

Many 2017 books had a greater focus on niche areas, of interest to certain readers, but with perhaps less broad appeal. Two that I’ll mention dealt with subjects I think inherently interesting to most math lovers:
A Most Elegant Equation” from David Stipp is an entire volume on Euler’s famous identity, e^(iπ)+1=0 , generally considered the most beautiful equation in all of mathematics. Though a few curmudgeons argue the equation is not that beautiful or inspiring (and Stipp deals with such claims in the book), most I suspect, think otherwise and for that reason alone will enjoy the volume. I especially liked the final, more philosophical chapter where Stipp deals with what ‘beauty’ even means in mathematics.

Unsolved” by Craig Bauer could probably be organized or written a little better, but again the topic, unsolved codes/cryptograms over time, is so inherently fascinating it will likely pull most folks in, especially with some of the more familiar ones that readers have encountered and wondered about at one time or another.

Moving on, statistics and probability continued to be popular topics in 2017. I’ll only note two volumes:
From Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms came “Ten Great Ideas About Chance.” I thought this was going to be another popularized account of probability for lay people, of which there have been several recently, but it’s actually a more technical work, better as an adjunct text in a class than for a general audience. Once again I especially liked the final chapter on Hume, Bayes, and induction, but every chapter has value often touching on ideas not always stressed in probability courses. There is also an excellent probability tutorial in the Appendix. If probability is a major area of interest for you, you will want to look at this take.
Then from Steven Miller, comes the prodigious (700 pg.) “The Probability Lifesaver” — again suited more for the classroom than a general readership. An impressive compendium of probability topics and problems for anyone specializing in that area.

Next, how about some biographies. I’m still waiting for someone to top Siobhan Roberts’ 2015 treatment of John Conway ("Genius At Play"), but these are worth consideration:
Keith Devlin dug deep into history, and clearly had fun doing so, to tell the story of Fibonacci in “Finding Fibonacci.” Meanwhile Ian Stewart, never allowing a year to pass without producing a book, gave us “Significant Figures,” a historical look sketching 25 great mathematicians. I found the second half of the volume more engaging than the first half, but if you lack short bios of many famous mathematicians on your bookshelf this one will do nicely.
A tangential book I enjoyed was “A Man For All Markets” by and about successful stocktrader Edward O. Thorp. Some, but limited, math — in fact the math is some of the drier, duller material — but many interesting anecdotes about life on Wall Street and elsewhere from a very intriguing individual.
A book I haven’t yet read, but looks good, is “A Mind At Play” by Jimi Soni and Rob Goodman, a biography of Claude Shannon.

Two other books I haven’t read but don’t mind citing are “Arithmetic” by the always interesting Paul Lockhart, and “The Joy of Mathematics: Marvels, Novelties, and Neglected Gems That Are Rarely Taught in Math Class” from Alfred Posamentier (again someone who churns out at least a book per year, and this one appears to overlap much of his previous output).
Two other popular books worth noting are “Beyond Infinity” from Eugenia Cheng (especially if you need a good primer on infinity for your bookshelf), and “The Calculus of Happiness” a quirky, practical, self-help guide from Oscar Fernandez.

And finally, I can’t let an offering from Marcus du Sautoy go unnoticed. “The Great Unknown” is a slightly encyclopedic volume covering a wide range of science topics and questions. In its scope, it reminds me a bit of Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture,” if you are familiar with and enjoyed that volume. 

Even with all this, I’ve left out dozens of math-related popular books from the year, but hope you or a few folks on your list will enjoy some of the above.

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