Sunday, December 2, 2018

It Was a Very Good Year... In Books

Time to Holiday shop for the math bibliophiles on your list….

This year was the hardest choice I’ve ever had picking a ‘book-of-the-year’ due to two very different books I relished so much (though, if you read my post of October 14th maybe you’ve already guessed my choice). In April Jim Holt’s fantastic essay compendium, When Einstein Walked With Gödel appeared and I couldn’t imagine any book surpassing its rich, thought-provoking content, crossing the boundaries of math, physics, philosophy, and culture.

Then on May 23rd, Ben Orlin announced he had written a book… and, well, the rest is (delightful) history. I loved his September volume, Math With Bad Drawings, more-and-more the further I got into it. Completely different of course than the Holt volume, but in the end had to go with the one that contained more actual math (though the subjects of Holt’s essays fascinate me), fresh, original content (Holt’s brilliant essays are fabulous but are previously-published material), and simply possessed a creative flair I’ve rarely-if-ever seen in a math volume. So it’s Ben Orlin's by a sliver as my book-of-the-year. And to look at him, Ben appears to be fresh out of middle-school… so no telling how many more great volumes he has to give us in the future!

By the slimmest of margins after these two, comes another fabulous compendium, The Prime Number Conspiracy (from those fine folks at Quanta Magazine). A collection of the great pieces they've been handing us for free for years now, so go ahead and pay up to read them again. With it they've released a companion volume of Quanta pieces on the sciences (especially physics) entitled, Alice and Bob Meet the Wall of Fire. (These are both paperbacks, and so very reasonably-priced, btw.)

A couple of other books I enjoyed this year were (like Holt’s volume) a bit tangential to math. Technically, Exact Thinking In Demented Times  by Karl Sigmund, shouldn’t be on my list. It was released in the original German in 2016, and was first published in English (translated by none-other-than Douglas Hofstadter) in late 2017. But I didn’t get it ’til early 2018, and loved it, so am including it here, though it is only for those who find the history and personages of analytical philosophy (specifically, the “Vienna Circle”) interesting.  Just a great account of a rich, potent time and place in academic history.

Nassim Taleb’s Skin In the Game was one of the most fun, entertaining volumes of the entire year. There is mention of probability of course (and also a 10-page mathy “technical Appendix”), but otherwise it’s not really a popular math book, so much as a pop-psychology or pop self-help (or even social anthropology) volume. Taken as an actionable financial or life guide the book could ultimately disappoint, but if taken as simply a fun, regaling read, with irascible, pontificating Nassim continuing to cultivate his burnished, blustery public persona, it’s readily recommended, even if not as substantive as his prior Antifragile.
[If you do want more of Nassim's serious mathematical work you can find him on YouTube.]

As long as I’m veering away from math with some recommendations, will venture further off the rails with physicist Alan Lightman’s Searching For Stars on an Island in Maine, a wonderful volume of meditative essays with more philosophy, metaphysics, or simply speculation and musings, than either physics or math. The sort of volume I think of as a beach-read for the more cerebrally-inclined.

And finally, also departing from math, Freeman Dyson was out with his autobiographical book of letters Maker of Patterns, which I haven’t read but suspect his many fans will enjoy. It’s likely reminiscent of Richard Feynman’s older book of letters (collected by his daughter), Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From The Beaten Track — most of those letters were quite mundane, but here and there are the ones that exhibited the brilliant, iconoclastic, playful, quirky image he took on publicly late in life (showing, I think, that that image wasn’t wholly hyperbolic, but very much a part of him). I'm guessing that Maker of Patterns is similarly a mix of the mundane with the insightful.

Anyway, returning now to actual mathematics, if you want a book you can sink your math chops into more, Vicky Neale’s short volume Closing the Gap, on one of the most fascinating mathematical narratives of recent years, is wonderful: all about Yitang Zhang’s contribution to the Twin-Prime conjecture, and tangential topics; short, but including a lot of ideas you need to slow down to contemplate.  Her writing is terse and straightforward (at times, a little more explication or illustration might've been helpful) with interesting detours from the main topic. A bit pricey for a 150-page book (but normal coming from Oxford University Press). Not necessarily for a general audience, but certainly timely and of interest to most mathematical types who hold any fascination with prime numbers or number theory.

Physician/statistician Hans Rosling’s book, Factfulness was published after he died in 2017 and doesn’t directly contain a lot of math, but is about related topics: data, knowledge, misinformation, patterns, critical thinking, and in a day of so much gloom-and-doom it carries an optimistic message of hope despite the ignorance prevalent around the globe. A very good, worthwhile, and acclaimed book.

Hannah Fry’s well-received Hello World is yet another offering in this burgeoning genre of volumes on big data and algorithms that are increasingly running the world and our lives. Very entertaining from beginning to end; a bit similar (I think) to the Rosling book above, and an excellent selection for all interested in this area.

But if you want a volume that offers much more of the math surrounding models, big data, and probability, than the above two books do, The Model Thinker by Scott Page may well be for you. More math and technicality, suited to a more academic crowd, but a solidly and surprisingly good effort.

Mircea Pitici’s latest Best Writing On Mathematics 2018 is another wonderful, highly diverse collection of math offerings from 2017. Something for every math-lover in this volume, as well as mention of the many popular math writings that didn’t make the cut for the edition, but may be worth checking out. Although his slant or themes change slightly from year to year, if you've read Pitici's prior iterations of this volume you know what to expect from this great series he's created.

A couple of other noteworthy books I enjoyed from the year that didn’t make my top tier, against such stiff competition:

The Art of Logic In an Illogical World is the third offering from ever-popular Eugenia Cheng, this time taking on the need for critical thinking in an increasingly polarized world. More and more of these volumes focused on critical thinking seem to be appearing... and they can't come too soon! ;)

The Calculus Story by David Acheson; a surprisingly nice, short intro to calculus, for anyone who is approaching the subject or wants to re-introduce themselves to it.

There were a slew of popular books I never got around to reading, but based on reviews or other buzz, here are a few I feel worth mentioning:

Lost In Math  — Sabine Hossenfelder’s contrarian take on modern physics cosmology, critical of the modern obsession with “beauty” in current-day physics theory; creating a lot of buzz, perhaps even polarization, among physicists.

Deborah Mayo’s  Statistical Inference as Severe Testing: How to Get Beyond the Statistics Wars is probably more for the professional statistician than a lay audience, taking on current day issues in the so-called “statistics wars” (Mayo is a philosopher, who runs an active blog on the issues covered in the book).

Alfred Posamentier — The Mathematics of Everyday Life, another typical Posamentier volume (always interesting, well-written) for a general audience.

Oliver Roeder  — The Riddler a compendium of great puzzles from the puzzle writer for the FiveThirtyEight blog.

Millions, Billions, Zillions: Defending Yourself in a World of Too Many Numbers — Brian Kernighan
...a small, stocking-stuffer-sized book aimed at bestowing basic, much-needed numeracy to readers.

From two well-established authors: John Stillwell was out with Reverse Mathematics and Eli Maor with Music By the Numbers.

Anyway, those are just volumes that favorably caught my eye in the prior 12 months. As usual there are plenty more where these came from! Hope some of them make their way into your Holiday festivities.

Meanwhile, some years I've done an expanded end-of-year list of posts I most enjoyed writing in the prior 12 months; this year I’ll only pass along four, none particularly mathy. In case you missed them:

Teachers in our lives…:

A bit about humor…:

Language etc…:

Just another ramble…:

And that's a wrap! Now get to your local bookstore.

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