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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Stewart Delivers... Again


"Instead of isolated clusters of scientists, obsessed with their own narrow specialty, today's scientific frontiers increasingly require teams of people with diverse, complementary interests. Science is changing from a collection of villages to a worldwide community. And if the story of mathematical biology shows anything, it is that interconnected communities can achieve things that are impossible for their individual members.
Welcome to the global ecosystem of tomorrow's science."
-- the end of Ian Stewart's latest book, "Mathematics of Life"


I received a review copy of Ian Stewart's latest book, "Mathematics of Life," causing me to ask just one simple question: does Dr. Stewart ever sleep!? Stewart is one of the most prolific popular math writers out there, and virtually always worth reading. I won't do a full review since I assume most readers likely already know and enjoy Ian Stewart's works... or, if you don't, than there's nothing I can do or say to cure your malady...

Certainly some of the material in this book has appeared elsewhere in previous Stewart books, but still this book is different (and unlike most popular math writing), in being so focused on the intersection of math and biology; a relationship that is rapidly expanding, but not often concentrated on.

From the title (and Stewart's past writing) one might assume the volume would be mostly math with biology sprinkled in, but actually I'd say the reverse is true: it is largely biological discussion with the math sprinkled in. The book is a great introduction to basic ideas for interested laypersons, or high schoolers and middle-schoolers interested in these fields, but also includes material for more advanced readers. The first 100 pages or so are largely historical and I thought a bit of a yawner, but following that are 200 very engaging and interesting pages surveying subjects from evolution, genetics and DNA, virus and protein structure, knots, symmetry, extraterrestrial life... a smorgasbord of topics. I especially liked Stewart's discussions of the biological concept of "species" and population dynamics, but there is much else of interest here, and the book progresses nicely as it moves along. Stewart consistently offers enough information for the reader to chew on and prod one's interest, but without being so technical or jargon-laden as to intimidate readers.
... so in short, don't be put off if the first 100 pages don't grab you; the next 200 pages are a great ride, that will have something appealing for every math-lover.

I recommend it for your shelf... right alongside a couple dozen other Stewart volumes... and, I also recommend Dr. Stewart go get some sleep now!

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