Kirkus Reviews QR Code
HOW NOT TO BE WRONG by Jordan Ellenberg


The Power of Mathematical Thinking


Pub Date: June 3rd, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-59420-522-4
Publisher: Penguin Press

It’s time to drop the idea that mathematics is an esoteric field best left to a few academics. In fact, writes Ellenberg (Mathematics/Univ. of Wisconsin), the truth is better: Math is everywhere, and the knowledge it yields can benefit everyone.

The structure of the world around us—everything from the genetics that determine height to intricacies of electoral politics—is infused with the principles of mathematics. Ellenberg, author of the “Do the Math” column at Slate, argues that math is not relegated to the set of hard and fast rules taught in classrooms. Instead, the field is an extension of common sense that has the potential for sophisticated and deeply insightful applications that produce better results than common sense alone. The author avoids heavy jargon and relies on real-world anecdotes and basic equations and illustrations to communicate how even simple math is a powerful tool. In addition to grand applications like those used in calculus or physics, mathematical principles can be wielded pragmatically to improve decision-making and better parse splashy claims made about the stock market or lottery—or, more humorously, claims that hidden codes embedded in the Bible can predict the future. Importantly, Ellenberg insists that improbable things happen all the time, and they can’t be taken at face value; there is frequently more information available that will improve a calculation’s result and eliminate statistical anomalies, however tempting those are to believe. The author writes that, at its core, math is a special thing and produces a feeling of understanding unattainable elsewhere: “You feel you’ve reached into the universe’s guts and put your hand on the wire.” Math is profound, and profoundly awesome, so we should use it well—or risk being wrong.

Witty and expansive, Ellenberg’s math will leave readers informed, intrigued and armed with plenty of impressive conversation starters.