#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. 😀 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. 😉 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.

Featured New Release Of The Week: Far Gone by Danielle Girard

This week we’re looking at a compelling mystery that keeps things refreshingly realistic – if completely twisted. This week we’re looking at Far Gone by Danielle Girard.

Compelling Mystery. This is one of those mysteries that has so much going on that it could feel disjointed in a lesser storyteller’s hands, but Girard manages to make it work quite well. We get the story primarily through three perspectives – Hannah, who witnesses a murder in her opening scene, Lily, a nurse who is a former kidnapping victim who is now working to rebuild her life, and Kylie, the detective who helped Lily in the first book and who here is investigating the murder. Girard manages to keep the pace of the reveals driving through the narrative, all while maintaining plausibly realistic scenarios. Indeed, even the ending is surprisingly refreshing in its realism on all fronts – despite what some activists would have liked. Truly a great story told very well. Very much recommended.

#BookReview: You Bet Your Life by Paul A Offit

Startling Look At (Mostly Relatively Recent) Medical History. I consider myself a fairly well-read guy who is fairly knowledgeable about a *very* wide range of topics. Here, Offit shares stories of medical breakthroughs – including several which are now literally every day occurrences – and how the initial days of these breakthroughs weren’t always so routine. Indeed, many of the stories Offit shares about these breakthroughs – some of which were still being litigated within the last decade – are quite horrific, both from the practitioners really not understanding what they were doing and in some cases when they *did* know what they were doing – and did it anyway. Including one tale in particular about the (now) famous Jonas Salk himself that was quite disturbing to read. In the end, the book does exactly what it sets out to do – shows that there is always inherent risk in any medical procedure, particularly novel ones, and that often times it is those whose lives will be cut short with or without the procedure that take the risks that ultimately reduce those risks for later people and indeed enhance the lives of people they will never know many years down the line. And yes, all of this is wrapped around the current debate over the COVID-19 vaccines – though while these are discussed, they are not actually a core component of the text itself. The discussion here is current circa early November 2020 and is slightly outdated even as I read the text in early February 2021 – and certainly will have advanced even further by the time of the book’s actual publication in mid September 2021. Ultimately a truly fascinating read that is equally disturbing and enlightening, this book is very much recommended.

This review of You Bet Your Life by Paul A Offit was originally written on February 8, 2021.

#BookReview: An Anatomy of Pain by Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen

More Memoir Than Hard Science. This was a memoir-based look at the field a man has made his career in, what the science he uses is, his thoughts on his field and his practice, and ultimately a bit of a guide on the general issues of the topic at hand. For what it is, it is very well written and easily readable. But those looking for a more “hard science”, heavily referenced examination of the topic… won’t find that here. But from a perspective of “I’ve been in this field for decades, and here is what the field is, what I’ve done in it, and where I think it should go”… yep, this book is exactly that, and a very good general overview of the field from that perspective. Very much recommended.

This review of An Anatomy of Pain by Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen was originally written on October 15, 2020.