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Review: The Maths of Life and Death, by Kit Yates

The Maths of Life and Death, by Kit YatesI have two simple rules for deciding whether a popular maths book is Any Good. Firstly: does it teach me something I didn’t know? And secondly: does it entertain me when treading ground I’m familiar with?

The Maths of Life and Death satisfies both rules for me. Yates weaves stories around the maths — at times witty, at times charming, at times sombre, but always personable. He starts with a story about doing a capture-recapture experiment on snails with his four-year-old; he had me grinning in recognition within the first page and a half.

I especially enjoyed the chapter on epidemiology, which is an area I know very little about (and one where I sense Yates is very much at home). We’re taken through a series of stories about outbreaks: measles at Disneyland; historical plagues; smallpox and how it led to both vaccinations and proper mathematical modelling of disease. Then we get into the nitty-gritty of the S-I-R model and its variants, at least on a broad-brush level. (I’m not asking for differential equations, although I’d obviously lap them up if they were there; I think a few well-designed diagrams might have made the key ideas clearer still).

This is one of several places where diagrams would improve the clarity of the work – it’s hard to write about probability without getting bogged down in details. It’s harder yet to write about it in a way that sticks afterwards, and I think pictures (as well as tables) are likely to help here.

Kit YatesA fair proportion of The Maths of Life and Death will be familiar, at least thematically, to those who read plenty of pop maths books (I confess to having stifled a groan when the Sally Clark case came up; I’m pretty sure it’s the fourth treatment of it I’ve seen this year, and it horrifies me every time). All the same: it’s a powerful story. To write a chapter about the probability in the courts without mentioning it would be as daft about writing about irrational numbers and not mentioning the Hippasus legend.

Overall, I approve of this book. It’s funny in places, deadly serious in others, an enjoyable read — the kind of book that might make one think “Oo! I never thought of that. I’ll look into it!”. That’s not one of my rules, but it gets a tick there, too.

Disclosure: Colin received a free review copy of this book.

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