Review | The Joy of X, Steven Strogatz

13356649I’m a nerd. The idea that math can be used to explain everything, including (from the book jacket) whether or not O.J. Simpson did it, or how many people it is optimal to date before settling down, appeals to me. I love patterns, and I love the idea that numbers can be applied in the most esoteric situations in real life.

So Steven Strogatz’s The Joy of X instantly appealed to me. Life, the universe and everything… How can math play a role in understanding all that? And while I’m sure mathematicians can give me various answers, I looked forward to reading about it as written for a layperson’s perspective, and to understanding just a bit of the wonder that math can present.

Unfortunately, this book made the joy of X even more of a mystery to me. Strogatz begins with fairly basic arithmetic, and uses images like rocks and dots to explain addition and subtraction. He writes: “This side of arithmetic is important, practical, and–for many people–joyless. The playful side of arithmetic is a lot less familiar, unless you were trained in the ways of advanced mathematics.” I presume then, that the Tetris-style patterns with rocks represents this more playful side, which appears to be minor tricks with basic functions.

On one hand, I see what he’s trying to do — by presenting even the most basic arithmetic functions in new ways, he’s prepping us for the way he’ll present the (presumably) more fun, more advanced mathematics, such as how to calculate O.J.’s guilt, later on. The problem is, even the first few chapters gave me a headache. The four basic functions are math we as adults are already familiar with, and quite frankly, the struggle to see it from Strogatz’s new, supposedly more playful, perspective, just doesn’t seem worth it.

The book began as a series of columns, and possibly because of this, each chapter is a minor topic in itself, barely leading on to the next one. The result is a fairly shallow overview of various math concepts, and Strogatz seems to try too hard to make the math interesting. He explains the concepts well enough, though I personally think he either overcomplicates or underexplains his topics, yet never quite answers the question: so what? And when each chapter is its own topic, and each chapter begins a new attempt to present an aspect of math in a new light, the repeated sense of “so what?” becomes frustrating.

I remember starting Brian Greene’s The Hidden Realityabout parallel universes. I still haven’t finished it, mostly because it started getting really complicated, and honestly I think I need to start from the beginning to make sense of it all again. But unlike Strogatz’s book, Hidden Reality shows a progression — Greene begins with a really simple, accessible example of parallel universes, then slowly delves deeper into the subject, and explores further into scientific concepts. It’s not an easy read, but the payoff will be worth it — Greene tackles a complex subject and gently takes the reader deeper and deeper into it.

In contrast, Strogatz sounds like the high school teacher desperately trying to convince his bored students that math is fun (cue big grin and exclamation point). I’m not saying that the math he covers is simple — on the contrary, I’m sure most of it, particularly in the later part of the book, is over my head. But I do want to understand, and I feel Strogatz’s approach keeps one firmly in the elementary level of understanding. I’m sure this wasn’t the author’s intention, but I generally found his tone condescending — no way we readers could understand these concepts, so here’s a funny little story to convince you that it’s F-U-N!

I didn’t finish the book, so I don’t know whether or not math says O.J. did it. I did see the chapter about how many people one should date before settling down. It all boils down to a formula, and despite Strogatz beginning with a concrete example, it still ends up being really abstract. By the end of the chapter, I have a general idea of the solution (spoiler alert: it’s nothing you couldn’t have guessed without math), and still no idea of how to calculate it or why I should even bother.

A mostly joyless, shallow exercise, this book is hardly worth the effort.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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