BOOK REVIEW: Nature’s Numbers by Ian Stewart

Nature's Numbers. Discovering Order And Pattern In The UniverseNature’s Numbers. Discovering Order And Pattern In The Universe by Ian Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This popular mathematics book reflects upon the ways in which patterns appear in nature and how mathematics can shed light on said patterns. It explores why tides are predictable while weather patterns are anything but. It investigates why flowers disproportionately have a number of petals that is in the Fibonacci sequence (a list of numbers in which each is formed through the addition of the previous two numbers.) It shows one how an eyeball can evolve, and how long it would be expected to take. It describes where and how we see calculus, probability and statistic, chaos theory, and complexity in nature.

It’s unambiguously a pop math book, there’s not an equation in sight. It does use diagrams and various graphics to convey ideas, and these help to simplify and visualize the topic. If anything, I would say the book could have benefited from more graphics [and might even have benefited from a less strict rule about sticking to colloquial prose.] (Meaning, some of the analogies and attempts to relate clarified ideas better than others.)

I found the book highly readable, and believe that – overall – the author did a fine job of providing food for thought without getting too complicated for the general reader. There were points at which the author seemed to lose his train. For example, he off-ramped into criticisms of the division of mathematics into applied and theoretical branches and the tendency to more greatly value the applied side of this false dichotomy. I have no doubt this is a worthwhile subject of discussion, but not necessarily in this book.

If you’re looking for a readable discussion of how mathematics is used in the study of nature, this book is worth reading – especially if you are equation-phobic.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Joy of X by Steven H. Strogatz

The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Mathematics, from One to InfinityThe Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Mathematics, from One to Infinity by Steven H. Strogatz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a mile-wide and inch-deep overview of mathematics. That is to say, it shines a light on a wide variety of subdisciplines, running from counting through subjects like topology, using rudimentary examples to give the reader insight into the kind of problems that can be solved. The book employs graphics, intuitive examples, and step-by-step explanation to clarify mathematics for individuals who didn’t get on so well with the subject the first time around.

The book’s thirty short chapters are divided into six sections: numbers (arithmetic,) relationships (roots, powers, etc.,) shapes (geometry,) change (calculus,) data (statistics,) and frontiers (group theory, topology, analysis, etc.) Like most popular mathematics books, formulas and equations are avoided to the extent possible. Even the notes that elaborate for curious readers use mathematical notation sparingly.

If you’re looking to give math a second try, this wouldn’t be a bad overview to get started. I don’t think it would be of much benefit to anyone who’s stayed in touch with mathematics, but it makes a fine light overview of the subject.


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