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Math in Books: The Universe in Zero Words

I recently had the pleasure of reading The Universe in Zero Words: The Story of Mathematics as Told through Equations. Written by Dr. Dana Mackenzie, the book frames mathematical history in terms of some of the most important equations ever discovered. While writing about equations for a general audience can be a dangerous game, Dr. Mackenzie tackles mathematical notation head on. If the sight of an equation causes a chill to run down your spine, fear not; the book eases you in with the very simplest of equations (we’re talking 1 + 1 = 2 here) and guides you gently through a history of mathematics, from antiquity to present day.

Of course, as you move closer to the present, the equations get a little more sophisticated. Even so, Dr. Mackenzie does his best to ground the equations to something relatable to a wide . . . → Read More: Math in Books: The Universe in Zero Words

Math in Books: Math Puzzles

Presh Talwalkar, fellow blogger and founder of the game theory/personal finance website Mind Your Decisions, has recently released an e-book composed of 70 math puzzles previously featured on his blog. He was kind enough to send a review copy my way, so if you enjoy a good math puzzle, read on!

The book is organized into three sections, divided by general subject. There are twenty five counting/geometry puzzles, twenty five probability puzzles, and twenty strategy/game theory puzzles. Some of the puzzles are inspired by discussions Presh has had with his readers over the years, though many are not unique to this book and some are moderately well known. In fact, the intersection of the puzzles in the book with things I have talked about here is nonempty – some examples of overlap can be found here and here.

William Poundstone’s book on the history of Microsoft and the puzzle-based job . . . → Read More: Math in Books: Math Puzzles

Math in Books: Who’s #1?

In an earlier post, I closed by hinting at the mathematics of ranking. In this modern era, the topic is particularly relevant: the ranking algorithms are hard at work whenever you type something into a search engine, rate a movie on Netflix, or look at a product on Amazon. It’s also a popular area of study among sports enthusiasts, for whom accurate rankings of the relative strengths of teams can make all the difference in a fantasy league or a betting pool.

Because of all of these accessible applications, it should come as no surprise that the mathematics of ranking is the subject of a new book, titled Who’s #1? The Science of Rating and Ranking. Written by applied mathematicians Amy N. Langville and Carl D. Meyer, the book tackles a variety of methods used to extract ratings or rankings given some collection of input data.

Front Cover!

This . . . → Read More: Math in Books: Who’s #1?

The Probability Games

Though we are still a few months away from the start of the summer blockbuster season, the scuttlebutt is that The Hunger Games, opening this weekend, is expected to do huge business (and by huge, I mean upwards of $100 million). Based on the 2008 Suzanne Collins book of the same name, this property is the hottest new thing in the realm of young adult fiction, and in this post-Harry Potter, nearly-post-Twilight era of cinema history, the timing could not be better for movie executives. The book is the first of a trilogy, so whether you like it or not, these films will be with us for the next few years.

Cover image for the book.

If you have not read the book, or have no idea what I’m talking about in general, a trailer for the film can be found here (sorry, embedding has been disabled for the . . . → Read More: The Probability Games

Shameless Self Promotion #3

Hi everyone,

A while back I was asked to contribute an essay to a book on mathematics and popular culture. I’m pleased to announce that this book is now available for purchase! There are some great essays in this book – I’ll let you decide how mine stacks up with the rest – and it also features a foreword by Keith Devlin, a Stanford University mathematician who you may know as NPR’s Math Guy.

I suggested they use my face instead, but they respectfully declined.

The price of entry is a little steep ($45), but if you’re someone interested in buying many copies (maybe you are a teacher, or maybe you just have a huge crush on David Krumholtz), I can get you a discount on bulk orders.

To whet your appetite, the title of my essay is Counting with the Sharks: Math-Savvy Gamblers in Popular Culture. Here’s the . . . → Read More: Shameless Self Promotion #3

Interview Roulette

Recently I started reading How Would You Move Mount Fuji?, a 2003 book written by William Poundstone on the history and popularization of the puzzle-focused job interview. The presence of logic puzzles or seemingly unanswerable questions was once a staple of many job interviews in Silicon Valley, and while the book is much more than just a laundry list of good puzzles, it’s hard to write about puzzles without giving some juicy examples.

Today I’d like to talk about one of the earliest puzzles discussed in the books, and show how one can pretty quickly poke and prod this brain teaser until it becomes a different beast entirely. Here it is, with wording taken from the book:

“Let’s play a game of Russian roulette,” begins one interview stunt that is going the rounds at Wall Street investment banks. “You are tied to your chair and can’t get up. Here’s a . . . → Read More: Interview Roulette

The Calculus Diaries

As the holiday season begins, I recently felt compelled to read through a gift I received over the holidays last year, a book called The Calculus Diaries. Written by English major Jennifer Oullette, who, by her own admission, had to overcome a not uncommon fear mathematics to write it, the book attempts to do what any reasonable Calculus course ought to do, but in front of a larger audience: convince the reader of the universal applicability and beauty of the subject.

Unlike most Calculus textbooks, however, Oullette’s book has an extra helping of sympathy for its audience. Oullette’s goal is not necessarily to make her readers expert mathematics students; instead, she focuses on unifying seemingly disparate types of problems under the umbrella of Calculus. Included amongst these examples are applications of Calculus to the equations of motion, thermodynamics, surfing, and the spread of disease. The wheel is not being reinvented . . . → Read More: The Calculus Diaries


This weekend, mathematics played a supporting role to Brad Pitt in one of fall’s first critical darlings, Moneyball. Based on the Michael Lewis book of the same name, the film profiles the Oakland A’s during their 2002 bid for World Series glory. What allegedly separates their story from the story of other teams during that season is the way General Manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, deals with the budget constraints imposed on him by the team’s owners.

With a payroll roughly a third the size of the Yankees’, Beane understood that the playing field was not a level one from an economic standpoint. What’s more, at the end of the 2001 season, three of the A’s star players left Oakland for bigger paychecks. To fill the void, the film (and book) show how Beane took a more analytic approach, and used statistical analysis . . . → Read More: Moneyball