What If

what ifWhat If?, Randall Munroe

If you’re on the internet at all, I assume you’re familiar with national treasure Randall Munroe, the creator of xkcd.  It is one of the most consistently excellent sites on all of the global internets.  Before creating a job for himself being professionally funny online, Munroe worked as a robotocist for NASA, so he’s also pretty smart and seems to know some things about science and math.  That’s where this book comes in.

This is one of the most useful reference books a person can own.  There are numerous books, encyclopedias, websites and people that can give you the facts you might need about the Revolutionary War, conversion from ounces to litres, information about Newton’s Laws, or any other number of things.  But I’m fairly certain this is the only book that will tell you how quickly you could drain all of the earth’s oceans if there was a drain placed at the deepest spot, and also what Mars would look like if the glass_peopledrain was a portal that placed all of the water over the Curiosity rover.  Or what would happen if a glass of water became literally half empty.  Or, my favorite, what would happen if you built a wall out of the periodic table of the elements.

(Short answer:

  • You could stack the first two rows without much trouble.
  • The third row would burn you with fire.
  • The fourth row would kill you with toxic smoke.
  • The fifth row would do all that stuff PLUS give you a mild dose of radiation.
  • The sixth row would explode violently, destroying the building in a cloud of radioactive, poisonous fire and dust.
  • Do not build the seventh row.)

This book is also probably the best argument for why it is important to learn advanced math.  No one believes their teachers when they say they’ll use this in the future, but calculus, trigonometry, and differential equations do have real world applications.  And if you don’t learn them you have to write in to an internet cartoonist to find out if it’s possible to build a jetpack using machine guns, instead of being able to run the numbers yourself.

So, if you don’t have the knowledge yourself to find out whether you could drop a steak from high enough that would be cooked enough from heat during re-entry to eat, or the time to figure it out, I suggest you get this book.  I don’t know where else you can find that absolutely necessary information.





The New York Times Book of Mathematics: More Than 100 Years of Writing by the Numbers

nyts_bookmath(3)The New York Times Book of Mathematics: More Than 100 Years of Writing by the Numbers, by Gina Kolata, ed.

My Dad got me this as a Christmas present since I’ve always been interested in math.  I was even on the Math Team in high school-Mu Alpha Theta for life!  I’m a big fan of science, math and nature writing so this was a good choice for me.

The Book of Mathematics is a fairly comprehensive book of most of the developments in math over the last several decades, as well as intriguing articles about game theory and statistics, computer programming, robots, etc.  In particular, there’s a very long article about the way some people are using game theory and complex computer programs to make it seem like the world of The Foundation is write around the corner.  It’s a really great book for an amateur mathematician, or just someone who’s a bit interested in the subject, since all of the articles are written for a popular audience.

My one complaint about the book is that since each article has to stand on its own, the book eventually gets a bit repetitive.  Every article on Fermat’s last theorem or on Andrew Wiles has to explain the theorem all over again and the history of failed attempts.  Same for the Riemannn Hypothesis, and even more basic concepts such as game theory are explained in every article that discusses game theory.  I could probably have used about half as many articles.  In particular, the shorter (less than one page) articles only had information that was already included in the longer articles.

I like to read things straight through, so the repetitiveness got to me.  This would probably be a good book for someone interested in math who wants to pick it up occasionally and flip through, reading a bit at a time and then putting it down for later.  And considering it’s size-500 pages, only in hardcover, and 6.4″x9″-it’s probably intended to stay at home for reading in spurts, not to be carted around with you.  And if used as intended, it’s a good read.