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By Ian Stewart

Pub Date: June 7th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-465-02238-0
Publisher: Basic

In the past, students who loved science but hated math studied biology. That won’t work today, writes the prolific emeritus professor of Mathematics at Britain’s Warwick University, who explains why in his usual enthusiastic but definitely not dumbed-down style.

Physical scientists joked about biologists as “stamp collectors,” and this was not far off until Victorian times, as they happily occupied themselves discovering and describing living things. By 1850, botanists counting flower petals wondered why they almost always came up with 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55—the well-known series called Fibonacci numbers. Mystical speculation abounded until 20th-century research proved that the dynamics of growing plants forces cells into specific mathematical relationships. Having dipped the reader’s toe into his specialty, Stewart (Cows in the Maze: And Other Mathematical Explorations, 2010, etc.) proceeds to deliver a history of biology followed by a tour of current research. A fine chapter on Darwin and evolution contains almost no mathematics. The story of genetics, all the way up to the Human Genome Project, demands grade-school arithmetic to understand Mendel’s rules of heredity. Readers with painful memories of high-school algebra will feel reassured because Stewart accessibly explains population growth, speciation, brain function, chaos and game theory, networking, symmetry and even the mechanism that produces animal stripes and spots. The lack of equations does not imply simplicity, however; all chapters begin with basics, but readers without a scientific background will struggle to finish more than one.

An ingenious overview of biology with emphasis on mathematical ideas—stimulating but requiring careful reading despite the lack of equations.