WHAT'S THE USE?

HOW MATHEMATICS SHAPES EVERYDAY LIFE

Richly informative for careful readers who enjoy math.

If you believe mathematics offers little of practical use, Stewart is back to show you the error of your ways.

In the latest of his numerous books on his favorite subject, the acclaimed mathematics popularizer writes for an audience prepared to pay attention to ingenious yet undoubtedly complex insights. He begins by pointing out that scientists and engineers depend on math, but this is no less true of politicians. “One of the curious features of democracy,” he writes, “is that politicians who claim to be devoted to the idea that decisions should be made by ‘the People’ regularly go out of their way to ensure that this doesn’t happen.” Most readers know about gerrymandering, but this turns out to be the tip of the iceberg as Stewart describes many other ways to pervert voting, all revealed and disproved by mathematics. The author then moves on to the larger question of election fairness. America’s winner-takes-all system seems reasonable, but if one candidate is defeated, 100% of his or her supporter’s votes are wasted. In nations with proportional voting systems, minority voters elect a minority of representatives, so their votes are not wasted. This is fairer—in some ways. In fact, mathematicians have proven that a completely fair voting system is impossible. “Dictatorships are so much simpler,” writes Stewart. “One dictator, one vote.” Regarding our most pressing contemporary issue, climate change, Stewart explains that physicists have found that the growth of melting ponds over Arctic ice bears a striking resemblance to other phase transitions, and sea levels are rising faster than predicted. In other sections, the author offers the revealing (but not simple) explanation of the mathematical background of a GPS system, explains the data compression that vastly increases a computer’s power, and delves into the genuinely weird: how a puzzle with no solution—proven by a great mathematician—increases the ease of kidney transplantation.

Richly informative for careful readers who enjoy math.

Pub Date: Aug. 17, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-5416-9948-9

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Basic Books

Review Posted Online: June 15, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2021

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ELON MUSK

Alternately admiring and critical, unvarnished, and a closely detailed account of a troubled innovator.

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A warts-and-all portrait of the famed techno-entrepreneur—and the warts are nearly beyond counting.

To call Elon Musk (b. 1971) “mercurial” is to undervalue the term; to call him a genius is incorrect. Instead, Musk has a gift for leveraging the genius of others in order to make things work. When they don’t, writes eminent biographer Isaacson, it’s because the notoriously headstrong Musk is so sure of himself that he charges ahead against the advice of others: “He does not like to share power.” In this sharp-edged biography, the author likens Musk to an earlier biographical subject, Steve Jobs. Given Musk’s recent political turn, born of the me-first libertarianism of the very rich, however, Henry Ford also comes to mind. What emerges clearly is that Musk, who may or may not have Asperger’s syndrome (“Empathy did not come naturally”), has nurtured several obsessions for years, apart from a passion for the letter X as both a brand and personal name. He firmly believes that “all requirements should be treated as recommendations”; that it is his destiny to make humankind a multi-planetary civilization through innovations in space travel; that government is generally an impediment and that “the thought police are gaining power”; and that “a maniacal sense of urgency” should guide his businesses. That need for speed has led to undeniable successes in beating schedules and competitors, but it has also wrought disaster: One of the most telling anecdotes in the book concerns Musk’s “demon mode” order to relocate thousands of Twitter servers from Sacramento to Portland at breakneck speed, which trashed big parts of the system for months. To judge by Isaacson’s account, that may have been by design, for Musk’s idea of creative destruction seems to mean mostly chaos.

Alternately admiring and critical, unvarnished, and a closely detailed account of a troubled innovator.

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2023

ISBN: 9781982181284

Page Count: 688

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Sept. 12, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2023

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A quirky wonder of a book.

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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