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

MATH WITHOUT NUMBERS

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 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2020

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

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

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. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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A solid foundational education in a handful of lively scientific topics.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE UNIVERSE

Two science podcasters answer their mail.

In this illustrated follow-up to We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe (2017), Cham, a cartoonist and former research associate and instructor at Caltech, and Whiteson, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine, explain the basic science behind subjects that seem to preoccupy the listeners of their podcast, Daniel and Jorge Explain the Universe. Most of the questions involve physics or astrophysics and take the form of, is such-and-such possible?—e.g., teleportation, alien visitors, building a warp drive, entering a black hole). The authors emphasize that they are answering as scientists, not engineers. “A physicist will say something is possible if they don’t know of a law of physics that prevents it.” Thus, a spaceship traveling fast enough to reach the nearest star in a reasonable amount of time is not forbidden by the laws of physics, but building one is inconceivable. Similarly, wormholes and time travel are “not known to be impossible”—as are many other scenarios. Some distressing events are guaranteed. An asteroid will strike the Earth, the sun will explode, and the human race will become extinct, but studies reveal that none are immediate threats. Sadly, making Mars as habitable as Earth is possible but only with improbably futuristic technology. For those who suspect that we are living in a computer simulation, the authors describe what clues to look for. Readers may worry that the authors step beyond their expertise when they include chapters on the existence of an afterlife or the question of free will. Sticking closely to hard science, they deliver a lucid overview of brain function and the debate over the existence of alternate universes that is unlikely to provoke controversy. The authors’ work fits neatly into the recently burgeoning market of breezy pop-science books full of jokes, asides, and cartoons that serve as introductions to concepts that require much further study to fully understand.

A solid foundational education in a handful of lively scientific topics.

Pub Date: Nov. 2, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-18931-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Sept. 7, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2021

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