Thursday, February 14, 2013

"The Joy of X," by Steven Strogatz

I like to describe this blog as covering metrics for people who hate math. Most of us hit a wall somewhere when it comes to math, so Steven Strogatz's entertaining new book "The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity," (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012) is a welcome addition to the bookshelf. Based on his popular New York Times column "The Elements of Math" the book is a lively exploration of areas you might not have thought too much about recently.

As the subtitle advertises, Strogatz starts out with one, and then uses a series of ones to introduce us to the abstraction of numbers. They represent things, sure, but numbers, Strogatz reminds us, 
have lives of their own. We can't control them . . . They obey certain laws and have certain properties, personalities, and ways of combining with one another, and there's nothing we can do about it except watch and try to understand . . . This dual aspect of numbers . . . is perhaps their most paradoxical feature, and the feature that makes them so useful."
After passing through some basics Strogatz explores more complex concepts. Complex numbers, for example, like the square roots of negative numbers (yes, they exist, despite what you may remember from high school, and Strogatz does a nice job of showing how). Play with complex numbers long enough, and you get fractals. (I oversimplify to save space.) Here's an animation:

He also riffs on algebra, geometry, calculus, statistics, and the frontiers of math research. It's a very accessible book which touches on extremely sophisticated concepts. The book stands on its own, yet Strogatz provides detailed references for those who want to know more. Don't be afraid to pick this book up; even if you think you hate math, this introduction to its beauty and subtlety may make you change your mind.

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