Book Review: Humble Pi: When Math goes Wrong in the Real World by Matt Parker (two stars)

Book Review: Humble Pi: When Math goes Wrong in the Real World by Matt Parker (two stars)

Engineering is easy if you know the math.

Cotton candy for the mind. Tastes nice, but no substance. A collection of math mistake trivia. Reads as if Parker collected a bunch of columns published elsewhere and threw them together. Not bad, just not good.

It is a mathematical certainty that you can find any pattern you want, as long as you’re prepared to ignore enough data that does not match.

Lots of folk knowledge. “Humans instinctively perceive numbers logarithmically, not linearly.” Disagree, naively we think big, bigger, biggest. “As an ex-high-school teacher, I have a framed poster in my office claiming that ‘Education works best when all the parts are working.’ It shows three cogs … all linked together. This poster has become an internet meme with the description ‘mechanically impossible yet accurate’ because three cogs meshed together cannot move.” His solution is equally telling.

Lots of folk knowledge. “Humans instinctively perceive numbers logarithmically, not linearly.” Disagree, naively we think big, bigger, biggest. “As an ex-high-school teacher, I have a framed poster in my office claiming that ‘Education works best when all the parts are working.’ It shows three cogs … all linked together. This poster has become an internet meme with the description ‘mechanically impossible yet accurate’ because three cogs meshed together cannot move.” His solution is equally telling.

The rule of thumb should be: if you’re not going to do any math with it, don’t store it [electronically] as a number. 

Parker offers a sobering reminder that, as much as math permeates our culture, most of us don’t know enough to recognize when number lead us or lead us astray. Certainly not enough to realize how much opinion leaders use numbers to mislead us.

Our modern world depends on mathematics, and when things go wrong, it should serve as a sobering reminder that we need to keep an eye on the hot cheese but also remind us of all the math that works faultlessly around us.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Humble Pi: When Math goes Wrong in the Real World by Matt Parker (two stars)

  1. Putting columns together is a time-honored traditional way of ‘writing’ a book. I’m thinking of doing that some day with my posts on my peculiar method of producing novels – the thing stopping me is that there would be so much revision necessary, I may need to decide to start from scratch. Except that my energy needs to go to finishing my fiction.

    Also, in comments on over 600 posts, I have rarely had a writer say, “That’s exactly what I needed! I’ll do it your way from now on.” So maybe my methodology, which allows me to write a complex and interwoven storyline with my damaged brain, is only useful for me.

    Fiction first. And then I have some other story ideas…

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