Humble Pi

When Math Goes Wrong in the Real World

[Amazon Link]

Picked up on impulse from Portsmouth Public Library. It's good!

The author, Matt Parker, is a British stand-up comedian who also happens to know his math (or, since he's British, "maths") pretty well. His book is (therefore) genuinely funny in spots. Fun feature: the pages are numbered backward, starting at 311, going down to zero.

And then rolling over to 4,294,967,295 (which computer geeks will recognize as 232 - 1) for the end matter. Ha!

So I had to jigger a different version of my Reading Schedule Generator to handle this; it normally sanity-checks its input for things like an end-pagenumber greater than a start-pagenumber. (But it worked once I ripped the checks out.)

The subtitle says the book describes what happens "when math goes wrong", but that's misleading. It's never the math going wrong, it's people trying (and failing) to use math.

An example Parker cites from 2013:

Yes, this is the same stupid mistake that was made a few weeks back by MSNBC anchor Brian Williams and New York Times Editorial Board member Mara Gay:

There's nothing new under the sun, as they say.

Parker doesn't stop at simple division. He wanders into probability, combinatorics, geometry, etc. Lots of computer programming topics, too: rounding errors, cryptography, random number generation, etc. As I said, it's funny in parts, but the upshots of "math going wrong" can be monetary losses, security breaches, structures swaying and falling, planes crashing, rockets blowing up. And, of course, people dying. So it's not all funny.


Last Modified 2020-03-15 6:35 PM EDT