Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Math Instinct (Keith Devlin)

I'm not going to lie and say, like most English majors would, I'm not good at math. Give me a good old pencil and paper school math test any day, and I'll gladly show you my work (though, for the record, I prefer not to do anything above advanced algebra). But just because I can solve some equations doesn't mean I necessarily want to read about them. I tend to shy away from books involving real math or science (or I take a sincere stab at them and then find myself reading page 3 over and over again without retaining anything at all). However, The Math Instinct won me over, which must mean it's a softer sort of science book, pared down for normal, nongeniuses like myself.

Devlin grounds mathematics in nature, where (I know, I had a hard time believing it at first, too) it actually makes sense. His examples (how bees compute distance flown, human babies' amazing sense of number, how a zebra gets its stripes) are highly interesting and entertaining. I'll admit that there were moments where the material was a little too math-intense for me, but then he'd pull me right back in with Brazilian street kids doing crazy market math.

It turns out (according to Devlin at least, and it seems like he's onto something to me) a lot of our problems in learning school math have to do with abstractness that isn't all that meaningful to us (or that we've learned the math for the sake of test taking only). And he has a very interesting discussion as to why American kids lag behind Chinese kids in math. Turns out a lot of stuff is about language, including math, and the two are so connected that the "English major" excuse can't truly be used anymore (don't worry, Devlin can give you plenty other reasons for not being good at school math, and he'll make you feel good about all the math you can do without knowing it).

While I enjoyed this book, I'll never feel the way about math Wim Klein, a bonafide math genius, does. When presented with the number 3,844, Devlin quotes Klein as saying, "For you it's just a three and an eight and a four and a four, but I say 'Hi, 62 squared!'"

Other Good Books: Thus far, the only other science- and/or math-intensive books I've managed to finish and truly like are The Code Book (Simon Singh), Longitude (Dava Sobel), and Endurance (Alfred Lansing) (which I'm not sure if it counts--it might be more under the adventure category, but it sure was good and seems enough about science to fit).

Next book up: Fiction! That's right. The first fiction book for the blog: Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn.
[NOTE: Next book up features are books that I have just started to read, so no spoilers please!]

1 comment:

Lee Anne said...

This sounds like a book that both my fiance (an engineer and pilot) and I (a doctoral candidate in English who likes numbers) could read together.

By the way, Ella Minnow Pea is fantastic!