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The book-length answer to anyone who ever put their hand up in math class and asked, “When am I ever going to use this in the real world?”
“Fun, informative, and relentlessly entertaining, Humble Pi is a charming and very readable guide to some of humanity's all-time greatest miscalculations—that also gives you permission to feel a little better about some of your own mistakes.” —Ryan North, author of How to Invent Everything
Our whole world is built on math, from the code running a website to the equations enabling the design of skyscrapers and bridges. Most of the time this math works quietly behind the scenes . . . until it doesn’t. All sorts of seemingly innocuous mathematical mistakes can have significant consequences.
Math is easy to ignore until a misplaced decimal point upends the stock market, a unit conversion error causes a plane to crash, or someone divides by zero and stalls a battleship in the middle of the ocean.
Exploring and explaining a litany of glitches, near misses, and mathematical mishaps involving the internet, big data, elections, street signs, lotteries, the Roman Empire, and an Olympic team, Matt Parker uncovers the bizarre ways math trips us up, and what this reveals about its essential place in our world. Getting it wrong has never been more fun.
Parker (Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension), a stand-up comedian with a penchant for math, devotes this enjoyable but off-target study to exploring all sorts of mishaps, from the trivial to the deadly, that he attributes to mathematical errors. His examples are at times gripping, such as the Air Canada flight from Montreal to Edmonton that ended in an emergency landing after the flight crew and airport personnel mistakenly calculated its fuel needs in pounds rather than kilograms. The problem is that the most serious errors Parker relates can be more readily explained by carelessness or poor planning rather than a failure to understand mathematics. The trivial, but entertaining, examples he discusses such as English road signs misrepresenting the geometric pattern on soccer balls, or McDonald's miscalculating the number of possible options arising from its McChoice Menu (247, not 40,312) are actually results of mathematical blunders. Parker's conclusion is thus not about mathematics but about quality control: "Mistakes are going to happen, and systems need to be able to... stop them from becoming disasters." Those expecting insight into the importance of mathematical literacy from this otherwise intriguing book will be disappointed.