Steven Strogatz has made a useful contribution to the surprisingly large set of math books written for the general public: The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity. I have to admit that I started out with a prejudice against this book, as I had expected the author to be annoying, as he was in The Calculus of Friendship. My reaction to The Calculus of Friendship was due mostly to Strogatz’s attitude toward his high-school calculus teacher, which felt more patronizing than respectful. But the new book turns out not to be annoying at all.
For the most part, this was a quick read for me, and I didn’t expect to learn anything new about mathematics. What I might learn was how to improve my skills at talking with non-math people about math, and that could be very useful. I do it every day, after all. The Joy of x is a collection of articles formerly published in the New York Times, so it assumes that the reader is intelligent and well-informed, even though not particularly mathematical. What was surprising was that I actually did learn some bits of math that I hadn’t known before, such as how Google ranks pages and about some of the implications of long tails and fat tails in statistics (including two very different ways to graph frequency). And I did gain a useful perspective on explaining math, as I expected to. The chapters contain a well-balanced mixture of practical applications and demonstrations of the beauty of math. I recommend it, not only to math teachers but also to members of the general public who wonder what mathematicians do and what use it all is.
One of Strogatz’s anecdotes particularly amused me. Strogatz was giving an interactive presentation about Möbius strips to his daughter’s first-grade class in Ithaca. Before he told the kids what they were going to be doing, he handed out Möbius strips. As he did so…
the teacher asked the class what subject they thought we were doing now. One boy raised his hand and said, “Well, I’m not sure, but I know it’s not linguistics.”
Only in Ithaca. Or Cambridge. Or Palo Alto.