The Joy Of X: A Guided Tour Of Mathematics by Steven Strogatz (book review).

February 26, 2013 |

If it wasn’t for the sub-title, ‘A Guided Tour Of Mathematics: From One To Infinity’, ‘The Joy Of X’ could easily be considered as a book easily put on the wrong shelf in a bookshop. Instead, it illustrates that writer Steven Strogatz has a sense of humour as he explains arithmetic and then mathematics.

Even amongst the Science Fiction community, not all of us enjoy playing with numbers. What Strogatz does is goes back to basics and explains why we need numbers in the first place and then what it all adds (sic) up. He also provides examples along the way that you can try out and even amaze other people with as well. I liked how you can add uneven numbers up and get the squares of even numbers. I’ve covered how we adopted the Hindu-Arabic numbering system in earlier reviews, not to mention why we use base 60 because it’s easier to record time that way and here it is told much plainer.

I do hope readers persevere when it comes to geometry. If you ever wondered how the formula for the area of a circle was derived this is highly enlightening.

This all prepares you for calculus, which is the maths of change. When I had to learn it some thirty odd years ago, I was still somewhat at a loss how to apply it but Strogatz ably demonstrates how it is used to calculate moments with it. For many of you, this is likely to be a big learning curve but a lot of it is just an elaboration of conventional formulas comparing one moment to the next and turning it into figures. He also moves into vector calculus where it can be applied to real life circumstances, including your mobile telephones and how they know where they are.

I did wonder over his demonstration of a Galton board showing the sombero or bell statistical curve as to whether the curve in his physical demonstration would flatten out when the middle columns were full in a real life situation. Would we get mini-bells on either side? Hmmm…going to have to think about that one.

If you are still wondering how this book can apply to you, then the chapter on prime numbers will explain to you why they are used for creating security algorithm codes for your computer. Seeing the gaps grow between prime numbers, I did wonder if Strogsatz has ever pondered over the fact that his graph also illustrates the distance between ordinary numbers as well.

This book is really for all ages and if you want to keep your sprogs amused, follow his guidelines in making Möbius strips.

If there’s a flaw, it’s having numbered notes at the back of the book but no numbers with the main text. As this is happening a lot more in the books I’m getting now, I’m wondering if either the writers or their editors know how to use the footnote aspects of their word processors. Even more so with this book, despite their length, which should have either been incorporated into the main text or at the bottom of the respective pages because they carry a lot of information and Internet links. Many people are likely to ignore them completely which means they aren’t doing their job correctly.

Despite this criticism, this is a great book to learn or re-learn mathematics and for parents, at least bring them up to speed with their children. As their sprogs can also learn from this book, it makes for a decent family read and both can learn together. If you didn’t know the reason for some use of numbers before, then you will certainly do afterwards and get some insight into how our reality ticks.

GF Willmetts

(pub: Atlantic Books. 316 page illustrated indexed small hardback. Price: £20.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84887-843-3)

check out website: www.atlantic-book.co.uk

Category: Books, Science