...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, April 8, 2018

Weird Math

A book blurb today. Usually I’ve heard/read some buzz about books I receive review copies of in the mail, and then have built-in expectations. Occasionally though a volume shows up I’ve heard nothing about, nor even seen the authors names before. “Weird Math” arrived recently as such a book. The authors, David Darling and Agnijo Banerjee are a science writer and math prodigy pair bringing forth another compendium of some of math’s most interesting/intriguing topics for a general readership. 
The subtitle for the book reads, “A teenage genius and his teacher reveal the strange connections between math and everyday life.” Many of the topics involve pure or abstract math, so I question whether readers will see the connection to “everyday life” in many instances, though that doesn’t detract from the appeal of the topics.  

The chapters generally get more complex or deeper as they go along, the final chapter being on Gödel’s work, and the subjects are ones often covered in this potpourri type of math book: dimensions, probability, chaos, infinity, prime numbers, AI, topology, paradoxes, number theory, proofs… Each chapter is more-or-less self-contained, though you may want to read them in order just to follow the progression from easier to tougher material, and I personally enjoyed the second half of the book more than the first half.

The volume’s style/format very much reminds me of Matt Parker’s wonderful/successful Things To Make and Do In the Fourth Dimension,” a favorite offering from 2014 (I don’t really like the title of either book, but that’s a minor side-note). Parker’s fun volume is a longer, more engaging, better-illustrated, and more mathematical read, with the added benefit of Parker’s British wit/humor! — I especially recommend it for young people already enticed by, and comfortable with, mathematics (also splendid for teachers). “Weird Math” is a perfectly satisfactory volume, especially to introduce the uninitiated to this set of curious math topics without the intrusion of very much required math. Also, it has one distinct advantage being new enough that it includes information missing in older volumes: for example, coverage of recent artificial intelligence news around chess, poker, and GO playing robots. Or in a chapter on large numbers it includes several much larger than ‘Graham’s number’ (which, perhaps in my ignorance, I still thought of as the "largest" number).

More and better illustrations and a livelier writing style would have made this volume a more enticing read (though it’s hard to compete against Matt Parker), but as is, it’s still a fine volume to add to your math library shelf or to introduce a young person (or layperson) to this set of always-intriguing math topics if they're not already familiar with them.

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