February 2020

Humble Pi

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Math isn’t a subject most people consider humorous or arbitrary. But Matt Parker (Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension) manages to portray the science of mathematics as both of these things in his brilliant new book, Humble Pi: When Math Goes Wrong in the Real World.

A former math teacher turned comedian and YouTuber, Parker uses a unique combination of witty prose and factual examples to guide the reader through a series of real-life events in which math didn’t work out exactly as expected. While many of us are aware of the precision and importance of math, we might not think about how much it’s integrated into our daily lives—for instance, what our computers and phones are doing behind the scenes, or how calendars and clocks track seasons and time based on the Earth’s orbit and rotation.

When a glitch does occur, we’re often surprised or even annoyed. Parker cleverly explains the how and why of these malfunctions in layman’s terms, drilling down to why math is so significant to our everyday activities. As he stresses, “We are approximation machines. Math, however, can get straight to the correct answer.” It’s both humbling and impressive to realize that much of what we’ve learned and achieved as a species actually stretches beyond what we were hard-wired for. 

And while this collection of Parker’s “favorite mathematical mistakes of all time” is fascinating and often humorous, it’s sometimes scary, too—especially when we realize how much hinges on mathematical calculations and the huge consequences of those calculations going wrong, such as bridges that fail, financial budget blunders and computer code errors that result in incorrect medical radiation doses. 

Ultimately, Humble Pi is an entertaining and essential read for both math whizzes and those who consider themselves mathematically challenged.


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