THE BIG BANG OF NUMBERS. How to build the universe using only maths, by Manil Suri (Bloomsbury, 2022) – a review by Henri Laurie

Goodreads link.

Oh no. Not another overview of mathematics, for “everyone”. Set theory, numbers from natural to complex, geometry, algebra. Axiomatics. Gödel. Infinity. Applications. Philosophy??

Isn’t this all a big yawn? Hasn’t this been done again and again? For example by Lancelot Hogben, Eric Temple Bell, Reuben Hersch (and that’s just off the top of my head)?

Not at all, as it turns out. Suri has a marvellous new angle, one that allows him to bypass almost everything those authors wrote about. There is nary a formula or a figure or a proof (except for the endnotes), nor much about big names or history or the various  fields of mathematics.

Instead, there is an emphasis on *ideas* and on pursuing them wherever they may lead. Indeed, Suri gives us mathematics as the passionate pursuit of meaning, as engrossing as physics or music.

The conceit he uses is that one can design a universe very like ours starting from nothing – that is, from the empty set.…

By | November 7th, 2022|Book reviews, Reviews|0 Comments

The best writing on Mathematics, 2021, Edited by Mircea Pitici – a review

NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.

I’ve been reading this series every year now for the last five years or so, and it never disappoints. Mircea does an amazing job each time at collecting such a diverse ideas, voices, and areas of mathematics, that I usually find the vast majority of them to be exceptional. This year is no different.

The book came out during Covid, and rather aptly starts off talking about the effects on mathematicians of involuntary confinement of one form or another. In fact the very first chapter talks of the work of Poncelet, who was involved in Napoleon’s failed campaign, and subsequently imprisoned in Russia, and of his teacher’s Monge, who studied aspects of projective geometry. It just so happened that the diagram of Monge’s published in the essay was precisely what I had needed for a particular problem that I was working on (though in higher dimensions).…

By | October 6th, 2022|Book reviews, Reviews|0 Comments

In pursuit of Zeta-3 – The World’s Most Mysterious Unsolved Math Problem, by Paul Nahin – a review

NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.

I have to admit that I felt very skeptical when I started reading this book. In the prologue it is stated that the book is aimed at enthusiastic readers of mathematics with an AP level of high school maths. Then, diving into the book one sees what looks at first sight like a pure maths textbook at graduate level. But Paul Nahin isn’t one to pull a fast one like that, so I read further. In fact, I raced through it, hugely enjoyed it, and in the end agree with Nahin that someone with a US AP level of high school maths, or here in South Africa a confident first year undergraduate could actually understand everything in the book.

The book is not written as a textbook on mathematics, much as it might look like one, but rather it is taking an historical path through the investigations into the mysteries of zeta(3).…

By | April 23rd, 2022|Book reviews, Reviews|3 Comments

When least is best, by Paul Nahin – a review

NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.

For my review of Nahin’s superb book “How to fall slower than gravity”, see here.

While not often taught as a topic with such wide-ranging uses in maths classes, finding the maxima or minima of functions is one of the most important areas in all of applied mathematics. I say this as a practitioner of machine learning, where most of what we do is trying to find the minimum of a loss function, and as a physicist where in quantum field theory, the dynamical equations come from trying to extremise an action. While these areas aren’t discussed in the book (the closest it gets is looking at the classical Euler-Lagrange problem), to get students to think about how useful it is to find the maxima and minima of a function is really a powerful thing.

Nahin takes on this challenge and succeeds in the same way that he succeeded in making the problems in the previous book of his that I reviewed both fascinating and easy to follow.…

By | April 23rd, 2022|Book reviews, Reviews|0 Comments

A course in Complex Analysis, by Saeed Zakeri – a review

NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.

This is a no-nonsense, clearly written graduate level textbook on complex analysis, and while it is written for a graduate audience, I think that the way it is laid out, with clear examples throughout, a keen undergraduate with a background in analysis and topology. As such it is far more approachable than many other books on complex analysis and I would say that it would be perfectly suited for physics students wanting to go into areas like quantum field theory, particularly string theorists where the sections on conformal metrics and the modular group would be very helpful.

One thing to look out for in a book like this is the clarity of the proofs, and the number of intermediate lines which are included, and in this case I think that there is just the right amount to make everything easy to follow, but not overwhelming the material.…

By | April 23rd, 2022|Book reviews, Reviews|0 Comments

Visual Differential Geometry and Forms – a mathematical drama in five acts, by Tristan Needham – a review

NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.

Studying physics, some two decades ago at The University of Bristol, I found the majority of what we covered relatively intuitive. Even the arcane world of quantum mechanics, while impossible to truly visualise, is, paradoxically, often relatively simple to calculate, and the objects that you use are directly from the world of complex numbers, differential equations and linear algebra. What stumped me however were tensors. I found it so hard to really picture what was going on with these objects. Vectors were ok, and the metric tensor I could handle, but as soon as you got onto differential forms, all my intuition went out the window. The world of differential geometry, while I could plug and chug, felt like putting together sentences in a foreign language where all I had were rules for using the syntax and grammar, without a deep understanding of what the objects were

This book would have answered all of my prayers back then.…

By | December 11th, 2021|Book reviews, Reviews|0 Comments

Curves for the Mathematically Curious – an anthology of the unpredictable, historical, beautiful and romantic, by Julian Havil – a review

NB I was sent this book as a review copy.

What a beautiful idea. What a beautiful book! In studying mathematics, one comes across various different curves while studying calculus, or number theory, or geometry in various forms and they are asides of the particular subject. The idea however of flipping the script and looking at curves themselves and from them gaining insight into: statistics, combinatorics, number theory, analysis, cryptography, fractals, Fourier series, axiomatic set theory and so much more is just wonderful.

This book looks at ten carefully chosen curves and from them shows how much insight one can get into vast swathes of mathematics and mathematical history. The curves chosen are:

  1. The Euler Spiral – an elegant spiral which leads to many other interesting parametrically defined curves
  2. The Weierstrass Curve – an everywhere continuous but nowhere differentiable function
  3. Bezier Curves – which show up in computer graphics and beyond
  4. The Rectangular Hyperbola – which leads to the investigation of logarithms and exponentials
  5. The Quadratrix of Hippies – which are tightly linked to the impossible problems of antiquity
  6. Peano’s Function and Hilbert’s Curve – space filling curves which lead to a completely flipped understanding of the possibilities of infinitely thin lines
  7. Curves of Constant Width – curves which can perfectly fit down a hallway as they rotate.
By | March 15th, 2020|Book reviews, Reviews, Uncategorized|0 Comments

Prime Suspects – The anatomy of integers and permutations, by Andrew Granville and Jennifer Granville, illustrated by Robert Lewis – a review

NB I was sent this book as a review copy.

What a spectacular book! I am rather blown away by it. This is a graphic novel written about two bodies discovered by cops in an American city some time around the present day, and the forensic investigation which goes into solving the case, and somehow the authors have managed to make the whole book about number theory and combinatorics.

I have to admit that when I started reading the book I was worried that it was going to have the all-too-common flaw of starting off very simple and then suddenly getting way too complicated for the average reader, but they have managed to somehow avoid that remarkably well.

It is however a book that should be read with pen and paper, or preferably computer by one’s side. As I read through and mathematical claims were made, about prime factors of the integers and about cycle groups of permutations, I coded up each one to see if I was following along, and I would recommend this to be a good way to really follow the book.…

By | July 9th, 2019|Book reviews, Reviews|1 Comment

Relativity, The Special and General Theory, 100th anniversary edition – by Albert Einstein

NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.

In 1917, two years after publishing his work on The General Theory of Relativity, Einstein published a popular science account of both The Special, and General Theories of relativity. It is with some embarrassment that I have to admit that I’d never read this before, despite taking a number of undergraduate and postgraduate courses in relativity. Einstein understood the importance that his results had on our understanding of the universe, but also that the profundity of them could not truly be grasped by the general public, despite the headlines which covered many newspapers around the world on his results, without a popular exposition. 1917 was the publication of the first edition of this explication, but he continued to update them up until 1954. This allowed him to extend the theoretical discussion with the experimental verifications and discoveries which occurred over the next decades, including that of the expanding cosmology, spearheaded by Hubble’s observations.…

By | April 19th, 2019|Book reviews, Reviews|0 Comments

Data Visualization, a practical introduction – by Kieran Healy, a review

NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.

I’m not an expert on the R programming language, but I have dabbled, which meant that while this book is perhaps aimed at slightly more advanced users (I’ve used it a half a dozen times for Coursera courses), I had enough to appreciate the value of this really lovely resource.

The book can be seen, I think, in two ways. One of the ways, which is the one which most interests me, is in explaining what it is that makes good data visualization captivating, clear and unambiguous. Interleaved in these ideas of aesthetics are the precisel methods to go about making such visualizations using the ggplot package in R.

The other way to look at the book is as a way to really get to grips with the advanced features of the ggplot package, which is taught via interesting examples of data visualization.…

By | March 27th, 2019|Book reviews, Reviews|1 Comment