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MATH WITHOUT NUMBERS

A pleasant, amusing look at mathematics as a description of everything.

A math prodigy examines how mathematicians view the world.

Math enthusiasts have a spotty record explaining their favorite subject to a popular audience, even when they exert themselves to hold attention with calculating tricks, paradoxes, or illusions. Beckman, who entered Harvard at age 15, eschews them all, maintaining that everything—“plants, love, music, everything”—can be understood in terms of math and proceeds to explain how mathematicians try. They love to overthink things. “We take some concept everyone understands on a basic level, like symmetry or equality, and pick it apart, trying to find a deeper meaning in it.” His first example is a simple concept: shape. By the mathematical definition, a square and a circle have the same shape, but a figure 8 is different. It turns out that thinking about shapes is a major field of study called topology. Beckman admits that this has no practical significance, but it’s odd and interesting, and most readers will agree. There seems little to say about infinity, but this turns out to be wrong and pleasantly bizarre. If you remove any number of marbles from a bag containing infinite marbles, what’s left is still infinite. Adding one or 1 trillion—still exactly infinite. Infinity times infinity…the same. Is any quantity more than infinity? Yes; it’s called the continuum, and Beckman offers a fairly clear explanation. Ultimately, the author argues that math is not about numbers or equations but models. A model breaks down phenomena into specific rules that, when applied, explain it. A few simple rules produce a quasi-game remarkably similar to Darwinian natural selection. Beckman concludes with a model of an empty space containing 17 particles that follow well-defined if absurd rules, but the end result is the “standard model,” physicists’ best interpretation of how the universe operates.

A pleasant, amusing look at mathematics as a description of everything.

Pub Date: Oct. 27, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4554-7

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: June 12, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2020

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THE BACKYARD BIRD CHRONICLES

An ebullient nature lover’s paean to birds.

A charming bird journey with the bestselling author.

In his introduction to Tan’s “nature journal,” David Allen Sibley, the acclaimed ornithologist, nails the spirit of this book: a “collection of delightfully quirky, thoughtful, and personal observations of birds in sketches and words.” For years, Tan has looked out on her California backyard “paradise”—oaks, periwinkle vines, birch, Japanese maple, fuchsia shrubs—observing more than 60 species of birds, and she fashions her findings into delightful and approachable journal excerpts, accompanied by her gorgeous color sketches. As the entries—“a record of my life”—move along, the author becomes more adept at identifying and capturing them with words and pencils. Her first entry is September 16, 2017: Shortly after putting up hummingbird feeders, one of the tiny, delicate creatures landed on her hand and fed. “We have a relationship,” she writes. “I am in love.” By August 2018, her backyard “has become a menagerie of fledglings…all learning to fly.” Day by day, she has continued to learn more about the birds, their activities, and how she should relate to them; she also admits mistakes when they occur. In December 2018, she was excited to observe a Townsend’s Warbler—“Omigod! It’s looking at me. Displeased expression.” Battling pesky squirrels, Tan deployed Hot Pepper Suet to keep them away, and she deterred crows by hanging a fake one upside down. The author also declared war on outdoor cats when she learned they kill more than 1 billion birds per year. In May 2019, she notes that she spends $250 per month on beetle larvae. In June 2019, she confesses “spending more hours a day staring at birds than writing. How can I not?” Her last entry, on December 15, 2022, celebrates when an eating bird pauses, “looks and acknowledges I am there.”

An ebullient nature lover’s paean to birds.

Pub Date: April 23, 2024

ISBN: 9780593536131

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 19, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2024

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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

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