#BookReview: What’s The Use by Ian Stewart

Beware The Mathivores. And Stewart’s Myopia. Ok, so the title of this review is a bit of a spoiler, as a “Mathivore” is a creature Stewart describes in the final chapter while summarizing the book. But it doesn’t *actually* give anything away, and it makes for an interesting title to the review. (One suspects it wouldn’t have worked as well for the title of the book, though I think it would have been awesome. :D) Beyond that, I also find it interesting that the only other review on Goodreads for this book at the time I am writing this one is from a historian with a bare knowledge of mathematics, and I am actually a mathematician (though nowhere near as degreed as Stewart, having just a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and lacking a handful of classes for separate Bachelor’s degrees in both Mathematics and Secondary Mathematics Education) with a fair knowledge of history. More than a “normal” person, likely much less – at least in some areas – than the other reviewer. ANYWAY, y’all care about what this book is about, not about me. ๐Ÿ˜€ But my background does play a bit into my own experience with the book, so I thought a brief summary was warranted.

With this book, Stewart *mostly* does a truly remarkable job of showing the history and current uses of math, in many ways many may not be aware of or at minimum fully aware of. With my background, I knew that there was *some* form of math in the background of most of the techs and issues Stewart discusses, but Stewart goes full-bore on the details, yes, quite often showing samples of the actual equations – or at least types of the actual equations – involved. And these are far beyond E=MC^2, y’all. ๐Ÿ˜‰ But still, Stewart’s explanations, at least to my own mathematically inclined brain, were straightforward enough, and there is enough humor (of the British variety) sprinkled throughout to make the overall text much more palatable to the average reader.

But there *are* a couple of weaknesses even from my own perspective, and they combined to knock the book down a star – neither by themselves was quite enough, but combined they are.

The first is that while Stewart does a remarkable job of showing how math is integral to so many fields from elections to medical scanning to photography to fingerprinting, he doesn’t do so well in showing how it shapes everyday life outside of the tech people use and the things going on around them. He doesn’t show how people actually *use* math every day, from calculating how much a trip will take to estimating their grocery bill or restaurant tab to deciding any of the numerous factors related to personal finance and building or maintaining any form of home. Perhaps a follow-on book could explain how these maths shape even more people’s lives.

The second is Stewart’s Myopia. By this, I mean those issues where the Professor. At several key points – likely not caught by someone less familiar with the mathematics of the fields – Stewart dismisses advances in mathematics that oppose his positions. In one, while there is indeed still much work to be done, Stewart’s disdain for autonomous cars belies the stunning advances made in mathematics related to the field. In the other big one, Stewart seems completely ignorant of the emerging mathematics showing the many varying holes in the current “Climate Change” “science” – including some written by a man who quite literally wrote one of the first textbooks on climate modeling with computers. Another, more obscure one, was where Stewart mentions numeracy and Bayesian statistics, but seems ignorant of Bernoulli’s Fallacy (or at minimum dismissive of those who pursue that line of mathematical thinking).

Overall, this *is* a strong book with quite a bit to be commended. It could simply have been a bit stronger. Very much recommended.

This review of What’s The Use by Ian Stewart was originally written on July 26, 2021.

#BookReview: Shape by Jordan Ellenberg

Love Song To Geometry – And A Look At How It Is Truly Everywhere. This is a mathematician showing just how prevalent geometry is in our every day lives – and why modern math classes tend to ruin it for most people. As a mathematics oriented person myself (got one math-derived degree, very nearly got two others almost at the same time, former math teacher, current active software developer), this was fairly easy to follow – Ellenberg mentions some advanced concepts without actually *showing* many of them, though there *is* more actual equations in here than some might like in a “popsci” level book. Thanks to Ellenberg’s explanations of said equations and concepts, this *should* be an easy enough follow for most anyone. And he really does do a great job of showing how even advanced ideas really do come down to the most basic principles – just applied in particularly interesting ways. Indeed, the only real critique I have here is that when Ellenberg gets off the math specifically and into more political and social commentary – even when ostensbily using the math as a shield – it gets much closer to “Your Mileage May Vary” level. Overall, those moments weren’t quite pervasive enough nor did they stray far enough from the central premise to warrant dropping a star, and thus the book maintains the full five stars that all books start with for me. Very much recommended.

This review of Shape by Jordan Ellenberg was originally written on March 27, 2021.

#BookReview: What Are The Chances by Barbara Blatchley

The Chances Are Good That This Is A Solid Book. Blatchley does an excellent job of looking at the various reasons why we believe in luck, from the societal to the social to the psychological and even the biological. And she does it with enough precision to do justice to the mathematics involved, but with enough generality to be enjoyable to a non-mathematics-oriented public. Overall an excellent “popular science” level look at the subject at hand, and very much recommended.

This review of What Are The Chances by Barbara Blatchley was originally written on March 10, 2021.

#BookReview: The Love Square by Laura Jane Williams

Not An Actual Love Square, But A Solid Romance. I’m a math oriented dude. The imprecision of “love triangle” has always bothered me. For those, assuming both sexes are involved, you need two bi people and a straight person, at minimum. (There *are* possible variations, but a true love triangle would have Person A in love with Person B and Person C – *and* Person B and Person C in love with both Person A *and each other*.) “Love Triangles”, in the common parlance, are actually Love *Angles*, such that two points are connected at a common third point. Similarly, for this Love Square to work, it would really need 2 couples such that each couple is in love with each other *as well as* exactly one person in the other couple. Here, we get two side by side Love Angles such that *three* points are connected at a common *fourth* point.

Math technicalities and English imprecision aside, however, this was actually a solid romance tale of finding oneself and what one really wants that put an interesting spin on the colloquial “Love Triangle” by introducing a *third* man that the common woman falls in love with. And in some fairly direct ways, it actually parallels a lot of what Padma Lakshmi said about her own “love triangle” in her memoir Love, Loss, and What We Ate. You’ve got the guy that our female lead – Penny – has an instant connection with. Then you’ve got the guy that actively pursues her and they wind up together almost via fluke. Then you’ve got the guy Penny is introduced to and has a fun time with, but who isn’t interested in long term or commitment generally. And along the way, Penny gets thrust into situations she doesn’t always have complete control of, all while still trying to discover herself after having survived cancer at a fairly early age – mid 20s. The characters are all solid and interesting, and each of the guys makes very strong points about love and what matters. In the end, if you like romance novels at all, you’re probably going to enjoy this one. And if you don’t, give this one a chance – at least it has a few more-interesting-than-normal wrinkles. ๐Ÿ™‚ Very much recommended.

This review of The Love Square by Laura Jane Williams was originally written on December 18, 2020.

#BookReview: Humble Pi by Matt Parker

The Daily Show for Math. In this hilarious and sometimes tragic book about math in the real world – some instances discussed include the deaths of hundreds of people, but most discussions are of a humorous bent – Parker does a truly phenomenal job of showing just how easy it is to get math wrong, and what can happen in the real world in that situation. From bridge collapses to programming errors to planes running out of fuel midair and all kinds of other situations, Parker truly does an excellent job of looking across the spectrum of math errors and showing both what should have been the correct result and what happened with the wrong one. Truly hilarious, and very much recommended.

This review of Humble Pi by Matt Parker was originally written on February 1, 2020.