the secret life of numbers


Just read/glanced through another math-for-the-masses book : [The secret life of numbers](http://www.amazon.co.uk/Secret-Life-Numbers-Pieces-Mathematicians/dp/0309096588/sr=81/qid=1168541999/ref=sr_1_1/203-3776750-7074362?ie=UTF8&s=books) by [George G.
Szpiro](http://www.citebase.org/search?submit=1&author=Szpiro%2C+George+G.). The subtitle made me buy the book : **50 easy pieces on how
mathematicians work and think** Could be fun, I thought, certainly after
reading the Amazon-blurb :

Most of us picture
mathematicians laboring before a chalkboard, scribbling numbers and
obscure symbols as they mutter unintelligibly. This lighthearted (but
realistic) sneak-peak into the everyday world of mathematicians turns
that stereotype on its head. Most people have little idea what
mathematicians do or how they think. It’s often difficult to see how
their seemingly arcane and esoteric work applies to our own everyday
lives. But mathematics also holds a special allure for many people. We
are drawn to its inherent beauty and fascinated by its complexity – but
often intimidated by its presumed difficulty. \”The Secret Life of
Numbers\” opens our eyes to the joys of mathematics, introducing us to
the charming, often whimsical side, of the
discipline.

Please correct me when I’m wrong,
but I found just one out of 50 pieces which remotely fulfills this
promise : ‘Cozy Zurich’ ((on the awesome technical support a lecturer
in Zurich is rumoured to receive)). Still, there are some other pieces
worth reading, 1. ‘A puzzle by any other name’ ((On the
Collatz problem)) 2. ‘Twins, cousins and sexy primes’ ((How
reasearch into the twin primes problem led to the discovery of a
Pentium-bug)) 3. ‘Proving the proof’ ((On Kepler’s problem)) 4.
‘Has Poincare’s conjecture finally been solved’ ((Of course it has
been)) 5. ‘Late tribute to a tragic hero’ ((On Abel’s life and
prize)) 6. ‘God’s gift to science?’ ((Stephen Wolfram
bashing)) to single out a few, embedded in a soup made out of the
usual suspects (knots, chaos, RSA etc.). But, all in all, I fear the
book doesn’t fulfill its promises and once again it demonstrates how
little ‘math-substance’ one is able to put in a book for a general
audience. But let us end with a quote from the preface that I really
like :

Whenever a socialite shows off his flair
at a coctail party by reciting a stanza from an obscure poem, he is
considered well-read and full of wit. Not much ado can be made with the
recitation of a mathematical formula, however. At most, one may expect a
few pitying glances and the title ‘party’s most nerdy guest’. To the
concurring nods of the cocktail crowd, most bystanders will admit that
they are no good at math, never have been, and never will be.
Actually, this is quite astonishing. Imagine your lawyer
telling you that he is no good at spelling, your dentist proudly
proclaiming that she speaks n foreign language, and your financial
advisor admitting with glee that he always mixes up Voltaire with
Moliere. With ample reason one would consider such people as ignorant.
Not so with mathematics. Shortcomings in this intellectual discipline
are met with understanding by everyone.

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