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How Long is a Piece of String? - Book Review

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by Luna (subscribe)
mass-reader of fiction for the wrong age group
Published December 3rd 2012
Maths, now 99% more friendly
There are some people whose skill with processing numbers is so great that they make calculators redundant. Quite notable are those who do sums in their heads while counting up the amount they've spent grocery shopping.

But beyond those mundane additions and subtractions, maths is usually seen to be something abstract, often thanks and no thanks to educators. It is like a strange and difficult foreign language, accessible to only those who just understand. And of course, cue the students: "Where can we ever use this?"

The correct answer is: everywhere. But this may be hidden behind the masses of the seemingly meaningless figures we tend to associate with maths.

How Long is a Piece of String? by Rod Eastaway and Jeremy Wyndham has a more informative subtitle: 'More Hidden Mathematics of Everyday Life'. This is very much a maths book for the 'average' person, but even those who have mathematical backgrounds can learn about how maths can be used in non-abstract, very concrete ways.

How Long is a Piece of String?

As suggested, Eastaway and Wyndham explain the mathematics lurking behind some 'everyday' life occurrences, including: game show strategies, how con artists make money, fraud detection, and how the media can tell half-truths with numbers. There are also some interesting history lessons, too. For example, the twelve-note musical scale that is ingrained in today's musical culture, and our system of measuring time, are the products of some coincidences and trial-and-error with mathematical backbones.

Keeping in mind that their audience may not have a technical background, the authors have kept the maths simple. Where the formulae or reasoning is too complicated, they opt to explain the conclusion supported by the maths, rather than go through the laborious process of derivation. This may, however, be frustrating to those who wish to find out exactly that.

Often, though, the reader is shown how straightforward mathematics can reveal the truths behind the workings of everyday incidents. Additionally, there is the revelation of how one's ignorance of maths can be exploited and used against them.

But more importantly, the book is about how mathematics is tied with logical thought. It encourages the reader to think about and question the meaning of the numbers they see floating around them. Most of maths is abstract, but some it is not. Maths really is everywhere.

You can find the book at your local library, purchase from the publisher here (prices in pounds), or at other online stores like Amazon or Book Depository.

To finish with the closing lines of the book: "There is nothing that spin doctors would like more than a generally innumerate society, so that we can be fed exactly the numbers they want to feed us. With mathematics, it is possible to fight back."
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