Tag Archives: math

e: The Story of a Number by Eli Maor

“e”: The Story of a Number by Eli Maor: Like its more famous cousin pi, e is an irrational number that shows up in unexpected places all over mathematics. It also has a much more recent history, not appearing on the scene until the 16th century. My favorite parts of this book were the historical anecdotes such as the competitive Bernoullis and the Nerwton-Leibniz cross-Channel calculus feud. Unfortunately, this math history text is much heavier on the math than the history, including detailed descriptions of limits, derivatives, integrals, and imaginary numbers. The trouble with this large number of equationsis that if you’re already familiar with the concepts you’ll be doing a lot of skimming, but if the subject is confusing then reading this book will probably not give you any new insights. In short, as much as I normally enjoy books about math and science, this particular one felt too much like a textbook. Recommended only for those folks with a very strong love for the calculus and related topics.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar

A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar: This is another book I picked up because I liked the movie. I liked the book, too, but was a little disappointed to learn how little resemblance there is between the two. For example, neither Nash’s college roommate nor his tendency to draw on windows were mentioned in the book, while Nash’s homosexuality and illegitimate son were left out of the movie. Once I realized that there was such a huge disparity, however, I was able to appreciate them as separate works. This biography of mathematician John Nash, Nobel Laureate and recovered schizophrenic, was simply fascinating. It manages a balance between the mathematics and the insanity without becoming either too dry or too sensationalist. I kind of wish there had been a cast of characters listing somewhere to keep all the names straight, but by and large I had no trouble following it. In short, I enjoyed it. However, if you’re just looking for a glimpse inside the mind of a schizophrenic, give this one a pass. Nash’s specific delusions are not described in depth, and most of the information is secondhand anyway. That said, I would recommend it to people who love a good biography, especially one that reads almost like a novel.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

The Code Book by Simon Singh

The Code Book by Simon Singh: A history of cryptography from ancient Egypt through quantum computing. My favorite parts were about WWII, with Turing and the Navajo Codetalkers. Some parts were a touch slow – cryptography isn’t nearly as thrilling as the activities associated with it – but by and large it was an informative read. My only real complaint was how long it took me to read. Though Singh’s text was thorough and readable as ever, it took me nearly a month to finish. I think I just wasn’t in the right mood for a math book.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Fermat’s Last Theorem by Amir D. Aczel

Fermat’s Last Theorem by Amir D. Aczel: Earlier this year I read a book by the same title by Simon Singh, and unfortunately it is the superior read. Both are about the steps leading to Andrew Wile’s 1993 solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem, from ancient Greece on. At less than 140 pages, this tiny volume does not do the story justice. I have a decent math background, but I found myself getting lost in places, and the intrigue simply didn’t grab me like it did in Singh’s book. If you’re in a hurry and just want a bare bones account of the history behind Fermat’s Last Theorem, this will do, but if you want the whole story, go straight to Simon Singh.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh

Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh: Most people are familiar with the Pythagorean Theorem which describes a right triangle: a^2 + b^2 = c^2. However, what you may not know is that Pierre Fermat claimed back in the 1600s to be able to prove that a^n + b^n = c^n has no whole number solutions for n > 2. Trial and error suggests this to be true, but for over 350 years, no one could prove it. This is the story of the equation and those who worked towards the eventual solution in the early 1990s, from Pythagoras through Andrew Wiles, who published the final proof. His proof is complicated enough that I suspect Fermat’s proof was flawed, but it makes for a surprisingly engrossing read all the same. There are tons of names and personal stories in this book, and though they often feel tangential, every single person discussed has great bearing in one way or another on the solving of Fermat’s Last Theorem. One doesn’t usually equate mathematics with drama or suspense, but both are present here. Definitely recommended for anyone with even a passing interest in math or history.

Note: The UK version of this book, which I have, is titled Fermat’s Last Theorem. The American version is called Fermat’s Enigma. There is also another book called Fermat’s Last Theorem which was written by Amir D. Aczel. Confusion abounds.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Assorted book reviews

I’m behind on my book reviews again. Here’s another bunch.

The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger (unabridged audiobook read by Bernadette Dunne): Since the movie was so popular, I probably don’t need to mention that this is the story of recent college graduate Andrea Sachs and her year of servitude to Runway Magazine editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly. As her time under the thumb of this self-possessed, uber-demanding witch continues, Andrea finds all the things she used to cherish – her family, boyfriend, and best friend – slipping away from her. It definitely had its funny moments, but all in all I wasn’t too impressed with Andrea. She was snobbish and I was simply not convinced that she or anyone else believed her constant torment as Junior Assistant was really worth a vague possibility that Miranda could get her any job she wished at the end of it (her dream is to work at The New Yorker). I found myself repeatedly wondering why she didn’t just quit already. Still, it was a decently light and fun way to pass an otherwise intolerably long commute. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie now. I hear Meryl Streep is absolutely delightful.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (unabridged audiobook read by Justine Eyre and Paul Michael): An interesting take on the Dracula legend told mostly in the form of letters from various people who hunted him. Though a bit slow and academic in some places, by and large it’s a fascinating psuedo-history lesson.

Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos: Innumeracy is not the inability to count, but rather a lack of a general grasp of numbers and how they work. Its dangers, and they are many, are generally outlined in this book, though it is not nearly as alarmist as it could have been. The target audience is mostly the innumerate and those numerates who are curious or concerned about innumeracy. Though I was familiar with all the mathematical concepts covered, I did learn some new things and discovered some new ways of looking at information. Though far from dense, the writing style is not quite as accessible as I’d hoped, and I suspect most innumerates and math-phobes will pass it by. Which is a shame.

Bill the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison: The first in a series of loony escapades of a country bumpkin turned soldier. In truth it felt more like a prequel, explaining the origins of Bill’s involvement with the Troopers, his two right arms, and his tusks. It was a very quick read and definitely had its funny moments, but it would probably be funnier to someone who doesn’t deal with painfully inane bureaucracy in real life. I have a feeling the next books will be better now that the characters are established.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (unabridged audiobook): This is the story of Jonathan the American and Alex the Ukrainian, who are both writing novels and sharing them with each other chapter by chapter. The stories switch off regularly: first a portion of Alex’s novel about his time working as translator for Jonathan as they journey through Ukraine looking for a woman who saved Jonathan’s grandfather from the Nazis during WWII. Next is a chapter from Jonathan’s novel about his ancestors in Ukraine. Lastly is a letter from Alex to Jonathan to discuss their novels-in-progress. There were two readers: one playing Alex and reading his novel and letters, and the other reading Jonathan’s novel. Alex’s frequent malapropisms are quite funny, in no small part due to the talented reader, but the back-and-forth of translation often leads to an obnoxious amount of repetition. Jonathan’s novel is, sadly, a complete waste of time. I’m not sure how much of this is due to the awkward, boring reader and how much is simply overwrought prose.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger: It is extremely rare for me to get emotionally attached to fictional characters. As much as I enjoy reading, it’s more a pastime than a driving need to dive back into the tale. Not so with this book. I adored the characters. I was entranced by Clare and Henry’s relationship, and fascinated by Henry’s genetic disorder that causes him to travel through time without any control over when or where he ends up. I cried – no, sobbed – at certain moments with a depth of feeling I haven’t had for fiction in a very, very long time. I highly recommend this book.

Animal Farm by George Orwell (unabridged audiobook): I’m pretty sure I saw the animated film at some point in my youth, but the book is far better. Orwell is brilliant as usual. And it certainly didn’t hurt that the reader was very engaging.

Anybody Can Write by Roberta Jean Bryant: Bryant believes that above all, writing should be fun. That if a writer isn’t enjoying his/her own story, neither will the reader. She accepts the reality of many drafts and much rewriting, but sees that part of the process as rewarding as the initial creative spurts. All in all it’s an engaging read that didn’t really inspire me. Included are several “Wordplay” exercises, none of which interested me very much. Of course, every writer is different, so perhaps this book would be just the trick for someone with another style.

The Golden Ratio by Mario Livio

The Golden Ratio by Mario Livio: If you divide a line so that the ratio of the smaller to the larger is equal to the ratio of the larger to the whole, you have the golden ratio, phi. There has been an abundance of literature on the presence of phi in a number of unexpected locations, and this book addresses many of these appearances intelligently. It is organized more or less historically, starting with the Pythagoreans’ obsession with phi (due to its presence in the pentagon and other neat little number tricks) and continuing through the present. The author avoids doctoring numbers to fit phi into famous works of art and architecture, and indeed debunks several such cases. While some of the direct appearances of phi are pretty nifty (such as leaf growth patterns on plant stems), much of the book covers subjects that are only related to phi by a few generations, usually through the pentagon or the Fibonacci numbers. I do not fault the author for this; tangents are to be expected in books about such a narrow subject as a single number.

The final chapter, “Is God a Mathematician,” includes leading theories in response to that question (yes, no, and sort of) and Livio’s personal opinion. I understand the desire to address such a topic, since mathematics is pretty amazing and phi is no small example of this, but this chapter seemed sort of forced, like the author was at a loss on how to wrap up the book. The explanation of the dual nature of light was sort of random, and the rather unsubtle promotion of Stephen Wolfram’s then-unpublished book (which was not well received by the math community) was sort of irritating. I imagine that Livio’s desire was to instill a lingering thirst for knowledge in his reader, to encourage further study, but it felt more like an advertisement for a newfangled religion that will change the way you look at the world. Despite the final few pages, I found this book to be informative and quite readable, which is always high praise for a book about math. Perhaps if Livio had left out his personal opinion I would have finished it feeling more satisfied.

Zero to Lazy Eight by Alexander Humez, Nicholas Humez, and Joseph Maguire

Zero to Lazy Eight: The Romance of Numbers by Alexander Humez, Nicholas Humez, and Joseph Maguire: I like books about numbers. I like learning about origins of language. And, for the most part, I liked this book. You cannot read this expecting some overlying theme to it all, or even a nice neat conclusions section to wrap everything up. Each chapter is its own entity and is tenuously connected to a single number (zero through thirteen, plus an additional chapter on infinity). However, the narrative is tangential and digresses often into adjacent but not immediately applicable topics. For instance, chapter 5 is spent largely discussing the measurement of time. Is it an interesting collection of random information? No doubt. However, it’s nothing more than that. It is less a book than a collection of well-informed essays bordering on stream of consciousness. I had hoped for more explanation of common number-themed phrases, but I had no want for neat little facts on math and linguistics. If you’re just looking for some light nonfiction, this is a nice diversion.

Originally posted on Bookcrossing

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