As my regular readers know, I am happy to be getting back to blogging after a hiatus due to complications following cataract surgery. This is the second catch-up blog about books for lovers of science and technology. This one covers four books about math and mathematicians and one about the nature of science itself..
My usual caveat: For my Roundups, I don’t read all of the books in detail, but they are published by reputable publishers and written by credible authors. I browse them enough to recommend picking them up from a library or bookstore shelf.
My usual request: Because freelance book review opportunities have almost disappeared, I now rely on Amazon referral fees to cover the cost of maintaining my online presence. If you are inclined to buy any of these books from Amazon, please use the links here so I can get a small referral fee. Another way to thank me is to click my portal to Amazon for whatever shopping you plan to do. I get reports of what people buy but not who is buying, so I will not be able to say thanks. But please know that I am grateful.
Since we have entered a highly political year in the United States, I will start with a book that can help us find our way through a barrage of statistical claims designed to influence our votes. How can we draw valid conclusions from data that we hear from biased sources? How can we distinguish information from disinformation? The Art of Statistics: How to Learn from Data by David Spiegelhalter. As the book’s publicity notes, “Statistics are everywhere. In our age of big data, large and complex sets of data are used for everything from traffic monitoring to online advertising to cutting-edge research in biomedical and social sciences. Meanwhile, the popular media bombards us with slews of statistics, often taken out of context…. Spiegelhalter emphasizes the importance of clarifying questions, assumptions, and expectations at the outset, identifying the data that might help, and then knowing how to responsibly interpret results…. As [he] walks you through a range of fascinating and practical problems, he ultimately prepares you to make more informed decisions that can shape your–and our–future.”
In other words, if you read this book and vote, you will surely choose the same candidates that I do. (wink)
Staying with statistics, we move to an author that avid math readers know well, Ian Stewart, emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick. The subtitle of Do Dice Play God? The Mathematics of Uncertainty promises a more theoretical presentation of statistics than Spiegelhalter’s book, but readers quickly discover that Stewart has another agenda as well. The third paragraph of the first chapter states:
Sometimes we’re not just uncertain; we’re uncertain about what we ought to be uncertain about. Most of us worry about climate change, but a vocal minority insists it’s all a hoax– perpetrated by scientists (who couldn’t organize a hoax to save their lives), or by the Chinese, or maybe Martians … pick your favourite conspiracy theory. But even the climatologists who predicted climate change offer few certainties about its precise effects. They do have a pretty clear handle on their general nature, though, and in practical terms that’s more than enough to set alarm bells ringing.”
Two paragraphs later, he notes that “world politics is becoming increasingly fractured, and old certainties are being shaken. ‘Fake News’ is submerging genuine facts in a barrage of disinformation.” Statements like that are guaranteed to generate several one- and two-star reviews on the Amazon.com page for the book, most of which accuse the author of promoting a leftist ideology. For scientific readers like me, the statements are factual, not ideological. Knowing how to deal with uncertainties in data, which is the book’s main thrust, has no political bias. In fact, it can inoculate you against falling for specious interpretations, whether or not they support your ideological bent.
Mathematics has a fascinating history that is best told through the lives of the men and women who shaped it. In
Math Makers: The Lives and Works of 50 Famous Mathematicians, Alfred S. Posamentier and Christian Spreitzer explore 27 centuries of mathematical genius. Though men dominate the book, reflecting the social biases of earlier centuries, women make their appearance in the eighteenth century and make up about a fourth of the remaining chapters. The publicity makes note of two in particular. Sophie Germain (1776-1831), who studied secretly at Paris’s famed École Polytechnique using the name of a previously enrolled male student and went on to contribute to the analysis of Fermat’s Last Theorem and elasticity theory, and Emmy Noether (1882-1935), whom Einstein considered the most important woman in math history for her connection of symmetry to conservation laws in Physics.
Of course, the book includes many names familiar to math lovers. A jokester might say that the chapter on Descartes was put before Deshorses, but the actual sequence is Descartes, Fermat, Pascal, Newton, and Leibniz, all of whom have been the subject of many books. In fact, this roundup includes a new paperback edition of one such book, Magnificent Principia: Exploring Isaac Newton’s Masterpiece, an update of a 2013 hardcover with a new Preface by Colin Pask. Universally regarded as one of history’s most important texts, Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) can be daunting to read. Pask has set out to provide, to quote the back cover, “an accessible guided tour.” Using the famous tome’s final edition and some biographical background about Newton, “Pask clearly demonstrates how it sets out Newton’s (and now our) approach to science, how the framework of classical mechanics is established, how terrestrial phenomena like the tides and projectile motion are explained, and how we can understand the dynamics of the solar system and the paths of comets.”
We close with a much less ambitious look at What Science Is and How It Really Works by University of Virgina Pathology professor James C. Zimring. The book is not intended as a modern Principia but rather as a guide to students and general audiences about the place of science in these politically fraught times. From the publicity: “Scientific advances have transformed the world. However, science can sometimes get things wrong, and at times, disastrously so. Understanding the basis for scientific claims and judging how much confidence we should place in them is essential for individual choice, societal debates, and development of public policy and laws. We must ask: what is the basis of scientific claims? How much confidence should we put in them? What is defined as science and what is not? This book synthesizes a working definition of science and its properties, as explained through the eyes of a practicing scientist, by integrating advances from philosophy, psychology, history, sociology, and anthropology into a holistic view. Crucial in our political climate, the book fights the myths of science often portrayed to the public. Written for a general audience, it also enables students to better grasp methodologies and helps professional scientists to articulate what they do and why.”