Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Book Review of The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math

The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity by Steven Strogatz is a fascinating book - even for those who aren't math whizzes.  (I speak from experience.) Over the past couple of years, I have come to see the beauty and order there is in numbers, patterns and formulas.  God's fingerprints show up all over the subject.  And though this book doesn't explicitly acknowledge arithmetic as God's handiwork, His truths shine brightly throughout it.

In the author's words, the goal of the book is this:  ". . . to give you a better feeling for what math is all about and why it's so enthralling to those who get it."  He breaks the book down into six parts:  "Numbers" (basic arithmetic concepts), "Relationships" (how numbers interact), "Shapes" (symbols, shapes and space), "Change" (calculus and the role of infinity), "Data" (probability and statistics), and "Frontiers" (cutting-edge math).  Each part is broken down into short, easy-to-read chapters.  And though there is much that I can't begin to understand about various concepts, there is also much that I learned.  For not only does the author have a way with math and a contagious love for it, but he's got a way with words.  His continual joy in the subject is conveyed through his oft declarations of math's elegance, beauty and illuminating qualities.  His joy, and the terms in which he expresses it, makes the book a delight to read.  A few samples:

"Sometimes when people say the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, they mean it figuratively, as a way of ridiculing nuance and affirming common sense.  In other words, keep it simple.  But battling obstacles can give rise to great beauty - so much so that in art, and in math, it's often more fruitful to impose constraints on ourselves.  Think of haiku, or sonnets, or telling the story of your life in six words.  The same is true of all the math that's been created to help you find the shortest way from here to there when you can't take the easy way out.  Two points.  Many paths.  Mathematical bliss." 

"Working with formulas . . . is a blend of art and science.  Instead of dwelling on a particular x, you're manipulating and massaging relationships that continue to hold even as the numbers in them change.  These change numbers are called variables, and they are what truly distinguishes algebra from arithmetic.  The formulas in question might express elegant patterns about numbers for their own sake.  This is where algebra meets art.  Or they might express relationships between numbers in the real world, as they do in the laws of nature for falling objects or planetary orbits or genetic frequencies in a population.  This is where algebra meets science."

Besides waxing eloquent about various formulas, methods and philosophies of math, history of the subject is scattered throughout the book.  A little fascinating info. about algebra's history, for example:  Algebra was developed by Islamic mathematicians around A.D. 800, building on earlier work by the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks and Indians.  One pratical reason to develop algebra at the time was to determine inheritance calculations according to Islamic law!  The word "algebra" morphed from the Arabic word, "al-jabr" which means "restoring."  

Beyond history, the author opens one's eyes to the fact that math is all around us.  He demonstrates the answers to various questions:  How geometry affected the Declaration of Independence, how Google searches the internet, how doctors use probability theory, and how vector calculus is being used to explain the principles behind a dragonfly's ability to fly.

And to bring math origins back to the Creator, I end this review with these comments - In a discussion of calculus and light, the author concludes this:  "The eerie point is that light behaves as if it were considering all possible paths and then taking the best one.  Nature - cue the theme from The Twilight Zone - somehow knows calculus."  Chuckling, I say aloud:  "And that's because the Creator created calculus and His creation abides by it!"

Yes, my friends, even math reveals God's glory.

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