Skip to main content

The Calculus of Happiness - Oscar Fernandez ***

There's something of the 'How to win friends and influence people' about the subtitle of this book 'How a mathematical approach to life adds up to health, wealth and love.' Big promises indeed. While I assume that there's an element of tongue in cheek about Oscar Fernandez's choice of these words, it's hard to read them and not expect this to be a book full of practical life lessons from maths - so we'll see how it does.

In three sections, Fernandez looks at ways we can use mathematics to analyse those three key areas. The first section takes on health, which is brave. I was rather surprised that a book published in 2017 didn't reflect the latest thinking on diet and health. Specifically, there's no mention of the research that reduces the distinction in health impact of saturated and unsaturated fats, there is no mention of the greater concerns about transfats, and sugar is only considered negative from its calorific content, not reflecting the far greater concerns that have been raised about it over its dietary impact. (There's also no mention of salt content or of nutritional value.) 

The trouble with this approach is that, while Fernandez gives us a sensible overview of the meaning of the numbers he chooses to focus on, it's not at all clear that these are the correct numbers to be using to practically improve our health.

We then move onto what felt to me like the most effective section of the book, where finances are covered. While the tax section only deals with the US tax system - it would have been good to have a version for at least the UK and Australia in an English language title - it still gives a feel for mathematical tax considerations, before moving on to give very effective numerical analysis for investments. The reason this felt most valuable is that it was the closest to something that could be of real use in everyday life. Not surprising, really, given that finance was one of the earliest direct applications of mathematics.

Finally, we move onto love, or at least relationships. Apart from the approach often mentioned in 'algorithm for life' type books of who to choose in a sequence of accept/reject interactions, a mechanism that feels more applicable to job interviews than love, most of this chapter seemed totally impossible to apply. Even when the information itself was quite interesting, such as Nash's bargaining problem, the mathematical approach described requires information that simply isn't available to the decision maker - to suggest that this is in some way a practical approach seems a little naive.

The author's aim was to encourage the reader to have more regard (or even to develop love) for mathematics by showing how it could be applied in these real world situations. However, the actual maths parts of the book seemed fairly dull to me (and that's as someone who isn't turned off by equations). Interestingly, and unusually, I was totally misled about the writer by his writing style, which seemed the work of someone significantly older than he actually is.

I'm afraid the combination of over-promising, under-delivering and what is often a dry presentation meant that a good sounding idea didn't always work in practice. Oh, and the Kindle edition is wildly over-priced. For a better general 'everyday applications of maths' book, take a look at Algorithms to Live By. But I'd still recommend this one if you'd like to think more mathematically about finance.

Review by Brian Clegg


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…