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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?

Review: How To Fall Slower Than Gravity, by Paul J Nahin

How To Fall Slower Than Gravity - book cover

The cover text says How to Fall… is “more than a puzzle book”, which is roughly how I was planning to describe it: twenty-six questions that require an element of mathematical or physical thought, followed by solutions in the obvious bijection.

Puzzle books, for me, are hit and miss – I’ve had a steady diet of pop-maths puzzles for the last three decades, and I’m cynical and jaded enough to expect a book of such things to be of little interest: either I’ve seen most of them before, or I’m just not interested in the topics at hand. Nahin’s book is something like an enthusiastic rookie that shakes me out of my cynicism.

Review: Humble Pi, by Matt Parker

Humble Pi - book cover

There are many things I admire about Matt Parker (or, to give him his full title, Friend of the Aperiodical, Mathematician Matt Parker) and his work, but probably top of the list is how he switches, apparently effortlessly, between modes. One minute, he’s showing off a fax machine to a group of hard-core geeks with Festival of the Spoken Nerd; the previous, he’s inspiring a “lively” bottom set of year 9s, after putting together a Numberphile video for people somewhere in between.

While Humble Pi – A Comedy Of Maths Errors is pitched firmly at the last of those groups – for a popular maths book to hit the top of the Sunday Times bestseller list, it really needs to be – there’s plenty in it for the others.

Big MathsJam Highlights, 2018

The dust is settling on the ninth Big MathsJam, and before I get too sad that it’s nearly a year until the next one, I put down some thoughts about what was so good about this one.

Wikiquote edit-a-thon – Saturday, May 12th, 2018

TL;DR: We’re holding a distributed Wikipedia edit-a-thon on Saturday, May 12th, 2018 from 10am to improve the visibility of women mathematicians on the Wikiquotes Mathematics page. Join in from wherever you are! Details below, and in this Google Doc.


Extension and abstraction without apparent direction or purpose is fundamental to the discipline. Applicability is not the reason we work, and plenty that is not applicable contributes to the beauty and magnificence of our subject.
– Peter Rowlett, “The unplanned impact of mathematics”, Nature 475, 2011, pp. 166-169.

Trying to solve real-world problems, researchers often discover that the tools they need were developed years, decades or even centuries earlier by mathematicians with no prospect of, or care for, applicability.
– Peter Rowlett, “The unplanned impact of mathematics”, Nature 475, 2011, pp. 166-169.

There is no way to guarantee in advance what pure mathematics will later find application. We can only let the process of curiosity and abstraction take place, let mathematicians obsessively take results to their logical extremes, leaving relevance far behind, and wait to see which topics turn out to be extremely useful. If not, when the challenges of the future arrive, we won’t have the right piece of seemingly pointless mathematics to hand.
Peter Rowlett, “The unplanned impact of mathematics”, Nature 475, 2011, pp. 166-169.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have every admiration for Peter and his work; his is a thoughtful voice of reason, and it’s not at all unreasonable for the Wikiquote page on mathematics to cite his writing.

Review: Closing the Gap, by Vicky Neale

Did you read Cédric Villani’s Birth of a Theorem? Did you have the same reaction as me, that all of the mentions of the technical details were incredibly impressive, doubtless meaningful to those in the know, but ultimately unenlightening?

Writing about maths, especially deep technical maths, so that a reader can follow along with it is hard – the Venn diagram of the set of people who can write clearly and the set of people who understand the maths, two relatively small sets, has a yet smaller intersection.

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