The Joy of x

A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity by Steven Strogatz

The world would be a better place, it is safe to say, if everybody had a basic understanding of mathematics and an appreciation for its scope and power. Economics, science and medicine, energy and the environment and diverse realms of public policy all depend on math as a guide to factual accuracy, sound judgment and intelligent opinion.

Sadly, the U.S. education system treats math like medicine to be crammed down students’ throats because it is good for them, without much effort to explain why. Strogatz, a Cornell mathematician, has now provided a delightful antidote to the math phobia that infects most students exposed to the standard curriculum.

Based on a series of New York Times online op-ed columns, The Joy of X presents the essential ideas of the major branches of math in engaging and entertaining language. Strogatz cuts quickly to the core of everything from basic arithmetic — addition, subtraction, multiplication, division — to sophisticated realms such as group theory, vector calculus and quadratic equations. Each chapter explains how such math works and illustrates its relevance to everyone’s life. (Math offers good advice on dating, for instance, and understanding vectors was the key to TV, cell phones and Wi-Fi.)

One slight quibble might be that the two chapters on statistics don’t cope directly with how they are used to draw conclusions from scientific and medical research (a chapter exploring that issue would have been welcome). Nevertheless, anybody reading this book will come away with the deep understanding and appreciation for mathematics that 12 (or 16) years of formal education ought to, but rarely, provides.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, 316 p., $27


Tom Siegfried is a contributing correspondent. He was editor in chief of Science News from 2007 to 2012 and managing editor from 2014 to 2017.

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