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‘Weird Math’ aims to connect numbers and equations to the real world

A new book tackles the mysteries of chaos theory, higher dimensions and more

By
7:00am, April 16, 2018
Tropical Storm Harvey

MATH GETS REAL  Chaos theory explains why it’s so difficult to predict weather — a small change in conditions at any point in time can have a large effect on future conditions in, for example, a hurricane’s trajectory (Tropical Storm Harvey shown).

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Weird Math
David Darling and Agnijo Banerjee
Basic Books, $27

Weird Math sets out to “reveal the strange connections between math and everyday life.” The book fulfills that laudable goal, in part. At times, teenage math prodigy Agnijo Banerjee and his tutor, science writer David Darling, find ways to make complex math relatable, like linking chaos theory to weather forecasting and virtual reality. But there’s a tension between precision and accessibility, and the authors don’t always find the sweet spot.

The book offers an in-depth exploration of the history of a number of mathematical concepts that Banerjee and Darling find intriguing. Some of their choices — including the mathematics of music, higher dimensions and chaos theory — are written in clear, accessible language that many science-interested readers will connect with.

The chapter on higher dimensions, for example, illustrates the utility of math for “seeing” dimensions beyond the three familiar ones. Because most people can’t visualize dimensions beyond height, width and depth, other dimensions may seem “mysterious or alien to anything we know,” the two write. Yet, ordinary math like algebra and calculus let researchers probe the properties of extra dimensions without first having to imagine what they might look like.

But a few of the topics — such as large numbers and infinity — get bogged down in the type of mathematical notation that the authors promise to minimize. Even with these hurdles, readers will still come away with a greater appreciation of how mathematics, as the authors write, “permeates every aspect of the reality in which we’re embedded.”

Although only 13 chapters, the book is wide-ranging, and readers can dip in and out without having to read from front to back. Many math newbies will probably find something to whet their appetites, with, say, the history of computation, the future of quantum computing or the role of prime numbers in cryptography. And serious math aficionados might find Banerjee and Darling’s meditations on unsolved problems in mathematics intriguing.

But check the table of contents before reading. Anyone looking for a more comprehensive popular mathematics book might instead want to turn to The Joy of Mathematics by Alfred Posamentier and colleagues or The Mathematics Lover’s Companion by Edward Scheinerman.

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