Skip to main content

Coincidences, Chaos and all that Math Jazz – Edward B. Burger & Michael Starbird ****

It’s not often someone manages to write a book on the topic of maths and makes it light, easy going and fun – yet Edward Burger and Michael Starbird have done just that.
In a relatively slim volume, the authors manage to cover a whole host of topics, without ever becoming terrifying. It’s not just the probability and chaos theory suggested by the title – though of course they make an appearance – but much more. Often, without resorting to formulae, there are simple, clear examples – for example, when dealing with chaos there is a demonstration of how easily number sequences can deviate that uses Excel as the generator of the chaotic sequence.
Again, series are illustrated using a wonderful physical example involving stacking playing cards that seems absolutely impossible if seen through the eyes of common sense – as often is the case with good popular maths, common sense, which is hopeless at maths, takes a battering. There’s a good section on topology too, a subject that is rarely well explained in popular books which tend to make confusing statements like telling the reader that a doughnut is the same topologically as a tea cup without explaining why, or spotting that this is only true of some doughnuts and some cups. Burger & Starbird manage to get the message across while maintaining the precision required for maths.
I do have one hesitation about this book. Because it has such a breezy manner, and speeds through topics so lightly, it can sometimes oversimplify. Sometimes surprising mathematical results are just stated plonkingly, without explaining why it’s the case. Elsewhere, the high speed delivery results in information that is only partially true. Take the example of airline safety. After pointing out how easy it is to misuse statistics, this is arguably what the authors proceed to do. They compare deaths per passenger mile by plane and deaths per passenger mile by car. But this overlooks the fact that more fatal crashes take place in the take off/climb and descent/landing parts of the journey than do in the cruise segment – distance isn’t the issue with airline crashes, it’s number of take-offs and landings.
If, instead, you make a comparison of the chance of being killed on a single journey in a plane with the chance of being killed on a single journey in a car (and most people want to know “will I survive this journey?”), then the car is actually safer. Taken over a year, of course, there are many more car journeys, so the plane becomes safer – but the difference between the two modes of transport is much less significant than basing the comparison on deaths per mile. The authors also take a rather parochial view, arguing that if people didn’t fly they would drive. This may be true in the US, but in most of the world, the long distance alternative is likely to be don’t go at all, or go by train. Try driving from London to New York. This, then, was an unfortunate example to use, because it hides a huge can of worms.
Such problems, though, are few and far between. This a great across-the-board intro to the fun of maths. Having read it, I would then recommend the reader to find a good popular book to get more depth on any topics of interest (for instance, my own A Brief History of Infinity inevitably goes into a lot more than is possible in this book’s short dabble with infinity) – but do start here.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…