Thursday 2 July 2020

Humble Pi

Humble Piby Matt Parker

I watch math videos on YouTube for fun.  For a lot of people that’s probably a strange concept.  Math has always been considered “hard”, and for the really advanced stuff, it is.  I’m not going to pretend that I understand a lot of it, but the idea that really strange things happen with math that we don’t ever notice because we aren’t mathematicians is fascinating to me.  After all, I work in a library: I chose words over numbers for a reason (and the Dewey Decimal System isn’t math).

Matt Parker is one of the best math YouTubers, and he has written several books for the layperson.  Easily accessible with very few equations to throw you off, he just uses regular plain English to show how much fun? Math can be.   


How does he pull it off?  He’s not just a math enthusiast and former teacher: he’s also a standup comedian. 


Humble Pi is his latest book, and it’s a tale of mathematical misery where math has gone wrong in the real world. Case in point: when Canada switched from Imperial to metric not every industry was prepared.  An Air Canada flight from Montreal intended for Edmonton never made it when the plane ran out of fuel mid-flight.  Fortunately the pilot was a skilled glider pilot as well and managed to find a runway to land on without power, but it was proof that a simple math problem can have potentially huge consequences. 


I realize that this doesn’t sound like the most appealing book if you just look at it on the surface, but I promise you that you’ll really look at the world in a new way when you realize how much these simple mistakes can affect you.  The stock markets can swing wildly based on a single typo in a spreadsheet. 


Humble Pi is a fun read.  There aren’t any complicated formulas or too many weird symbols.  Parker recognizes that the average reader probably isn’t too interested in a bunch symbols that we have probably never seen and never will see again unless we are doing a doctorate in theoretical physics.  He recognizes that not only do we not know, we don’t need to know to realize that math is more than just numbers: it’s ideas, and most of the time they are actually fairly simple ideas.  His enthusiasm shows, and it’s what makes me recommend Humble Pi  even for people who would rather never look at math again. 



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