Fantastic ______s and Where to Find Them

This book reminds me of the caller who asked the Magliozzi brothers a question about his Volkswagen Quantum: he couldn’t get it repaired because he didn’t know any Quantum mechanics.

What’s the connection? Well, first you need to know what word goes in the blank in the title to this post. No, it’s not “beasts.”

The missing word is “numbers.” Stay with me now…

Fantastic Numbers and Where to Find Them is a “popular” science book by Antonio Padilla. With a subtitle of “A Cosmic Quest from Zero to Infinity,” it teases the reader by suggesting that it’s about math. The “Numbers” and “Zero to Infinity” bits grabbed my attention, and I didn’t pay enough attention to the “cosmic” bit. It turns out that I was misled: yes, some of the book is about math, but the large majority is about physics—quantum theory, cosmology, and particle physics at that. Way above my head! Probably I should have read Quantum Mechanics for Dummies instead.

I was determined to like the book anyway. My objective opinion is that the math parts of the book were clear and straightforward, but the physics parts (the majority) were confusing and opaque. I confess, of course, to a certain bias in this objective opinion, since an entire career teaching math rather overwhelms one year of a second-rate honors physics course in high school. Even the math parts of the book speed by much too quickly, with two pages substituting for two hours of instruction in honors precalculus. Not surprisingly—since Padilla is a physicist—his heart is clearly in the physics, not the math. But at least he doesn’t fall into the all-too-common trap of treating math as nothing but a tool for doing physics problems.

Padilla does write with verve and style. Otherwise he would never have kept my attention for the entire book. Generally he is (somewhat) effective at using metaphors to explain difficult ideas; I say “somewhat” because I fear that what he’s really achieving is the illusion of understanding rather than actual understanding. (He also confuses schizophrenia with multiple personality disorder—but maybe that’s just another metaphor to him.) I do say that I liked his bits of mathematical history, especially about Georg Cantor, but that’s not really enough for those of us who are looking for more math and less quantum physics. There’s probably a moral here somewhere.

Categories: Books, Math, Teaching & Learning