And yes, I love math. I really do. I love the beauty and patterns that can be found in numbers, and I really love the weird abstract corners of math that deal with knots and multi-dimensional objects.
I also have a thing for reading books about math that are meant for non-math people – I like to make a game of seeing how long it takes before they jump the shark and become inaccessible to a general audience, to be honest! But every now and then. I find a gem that actually does what it claims to do (or at least, I think so!) Here’s the best of the best, as far as I can tell:
Matt Parker makes high-level math concepts accessible like no one else I’ve ever seen, using familiar everyday concepts and examples and a mixture of grade-school style hand-on activities to bring the abstract back down to earth and reality. For those that want to go even deeper, some of the more arcane concepts and proofs are more fully explained in the “The Answers at the Back of the Book”.
More than any other book I’ve read, Parker’s journey through numbers and beyond really brings out the fun and whimsy there is to be found in the world of math.
I like to describe this book as the biography of a mathematical problem, and of the books listed here, it’s lightest on the actual math. Fermat’s Last Theorem is a seemingly straight-forward claim about a simple formula. The prominent 17th century mathematician Pierre de Fermat claimed in the margins of one of his notebooks to have proven the claim, but never actually wrote the proof down anywhere. Mathematicians tried for generations to find the proof; many people managed to contribute pieces of the puzzle, but the full proof didn’t come together until 1994, almost four centuries after Fermat’s original claim.
Singh’s book is a great story about collaboration, tenacity, and ingenuity, with just a touch of mystery. It brings the math world to life in a way that illustrates its appeal to those who choose to dedicate their life to the field, without requiring the reader to get their own advanced math degree.
This book has the most potentially intimidating math content of all the ones I’m recommending here – it is mostly about (*gasp*horror*) statistics after all – but I think Nate Silver handles it all very skillfully, and everything in the book is very grounded in real world applications.
For those who don’t know who Nate Silver is, he’s the creator and editor of FiveThirtyEight, the blog that predicted the last two US elections with uncanny – and completely unprecedented – accuracy. Silver is a number-crunching superstar, basically.
In the Signal and the Noise, Silver explores various uses and misuses of statistical analysis, illustrating what makes the difference between a good prediction model and a bad one, by looking at some of the most successful statistical analysts out there, from his own experience with baseball statistics and elections analysis, to climate change science and weather forecasting, beating the stock market (or not), and poker strategies.
If nothing else, the book will convince you that these things have little-to-nothing to do with luck.