Math is an interesting topic but a hard one to present in a clear yet exciting way to the uninitiated. I am fascinated by higher order math—the sort of stuff that makes math indistinguishable from magic. Weird Math by coauthors David Darling and Agnijo Banerjee blends advanced mathematics with the ordinary mess of everyday life.
Most people’s impression of mathematics is that it is as solid an academic discipline as there can be. For many this subject is the epitome of precision and exactitude. It comes as a shock to many that the foundations of mathematics are an open question, that in fact there are many, many strange mysteries in mathematics. For example, there are odd and very deep connections between music and mathematics; both subjects share a fundamental relationship to harmony and order that many mathematicians find quasi-spiritual. It is also the case that higher order mathematics reveals strange new dimensions of reality. Indeed math at the highest level seems to indicate that the universe has many more dimensions then the ones we are accustomed to experiencing. In one section of the book the authors attempt to convey how it is one can think and “see” in four-dimensions (there are more dimensions but one should really learn to walk with math, so to speak, before one runs). There are also mysteries and paradoxes surrounding really, really big numbers what math experts call mathematics of the Infinite. In one chapter the authors describe a fun encounter between two professors (one from MIT the other from Princeton) each of whom attempts to outdo the other in creating the largest number they can summon with all the light their brains can generate. These products of numerical imagination are truly gargantuan—if you were to count all the atoms in the universe the result would be minuscule in comparison.
I suck at math. Darling and Banerjee are really good at math. I have always held mathematicians with a special reverence; to my mind they are like wizards who do incredible magic with numbers. I have also been thoroughly intrigued by the mysterious nature of mathematics and by some of the seemingly unsolvable paradoxes that numbers can generate. So this title was one that caught by eye.
The book caught my eye but the read was unsatisfactory. The writing and conveying of ideas about mathematics is a tricky proposition. There is no doubt David Darling and Agnijo Banerjee are brilliant mathematicians but that brilliance doesn’t always translate into clear prose about the topic they are so passionate about. The authors are excellent at suggesting the wonder of the mathematical problems that have intrigued mathematicians throughout the years, but the explanations fall short of packing their full cerebral punch. Granted the concepts are hard to verbalise, but I felt that the authors’ enthusiasm was there on paper but I couldn’t always see what they were getting at. Maybe you might have better luck (understanding).