Sunday, October 6, 2013

Prime Time

Admittedly, I was first attracted to The Joy of X : a Guided Tour of Math from One to Infinity by its cover art but, in all probability, what got me reading was the author's aim - to entice those of us whose previous math education was deficient or sadly lacking to enter his world and ultimately learn to appreciate it. In short, Stephen Strogatz, the Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University and the recipient of a lifetime achievement award for math communication, was offering me a second chance at math - sans tests, sans withering comments from a math teacher, sans letters like "D" on a report card. Count me in, I thought as I cautiously read the preface and then proceeded (slowly) to the first chapter.

The genesis of the Joy of X began with the author's popular online series which appeared in the New York Times for fifteen weeks in 2010. Strogatz uses some of these columns as chapters and expands the series to introduce "math's most compelling and far reaching ideas". The Joy of X is arranged into six basic parts: Numbers (Arithmetic), Relationships between numbers (Algebra), Shapes (Geometry and Trigonometry), Change (Calculus and Infinity), Data (Statistics), and Frontiers (exploring the borderland between the mathematical unknown and the mathematical elusive).

Best of all, each chapter is bite-sized, illustrated and chocked full of entertaining as well as thought-provoking problems. Although chapters are short, Strogatz infuses each one with a unique blending of math with law, literature, medicine, philosophy or popular culture. The author encourages the reader to graze rather than read from start to finish, if so inclined. Perfect for me and perhaps for you as well - math in mini portions.

Perhaps you've never pondered the following problem - if the cold-water faucet can fill the tub in a half-hour and the hot-water faucet can fill the tub in an hour, how long will it take to fill the tub when both faucets are running together? (Hint - 45 minutes is incorrect.) However, if you've ever wondered how Google searches the Internet or (closer to home) when to flip your mattress for the most even wear, or how many people should you date before settling down, then the Joy of X is the logical answer.


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