“Just how far would you like to go?” the enigmatic Frank asks in the sleeve notes to the Dylan album John Wesley Harding. “Not too far,” comes the reply. “Just far enough so we’s can say that we’ve been there.”

Reading maths at the higher levels is akin to poetry – dense, abstract, often impenetrable, albeit with its own rewards. But there are plenty of books out there that offer a digestible taste of the good stuff without talking down to the reader. The Dover series of maths and science books are a case in point, offering insights into a complex and sometimes daunting world but written in an engaging way – not taking you too far, but just far enough.

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Fascinating though it is, and despite the leading adjective in the title, Philip Meyer’s classic New Precision Journalism is sorely in need of an update.

Of course, a book written over 18 years ago can’t help but be overtaken by events. Some of the examples, and in particular the details, have dated badly. Even more glaring is what is missing – no mention of mobiles, no email and (naturally) no Web.

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Political Numeracy: Mathematical Perspectives on our Chaotic Constitution, by Michael Meyerson (Norton, 2002)

Hiding at the heart of the US Constitution is an invidious number: the fraction three-fifths. This was the worth placed on slaves, compared with free men.

The so-called “three-fifths compromise” declared that each state should count slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of taxation and representation.

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Bookshelf update

September 17, 2009

Spent far too much money in bookshops during a recent visit to Hay on Wye – but heroically avoided splashing out on a beautiful set of Pope’s translation of the Iliad (although at £450, temptation wasn’t that hard to resist).

But among the bargains I did snap up were Mario Livio’s The Equation that Couldn’t Be Solved, an account of the profound societal changes wrought by a special class of equation, called the quintic (containing fifth powers, as opposed to the quadratic, which contains squares). Read the rest of this entry »

Just received my copy of Working with Numbers and Statistics, a “handbook for journalists”, by Charles Livingston and Paul Voakes.

As the subtitle suggests, this – like Math Tools for Journalists – is aimed squarely at the working journalist and the budding reporter, and as a consequence covers much of the same ground: averages, working with data, business reporting, and statistics. Also like Math Tools, it is written from an American perspective, which means some of the content (such as the table summarising the CPI from 1920-2004) is of limited value to a UK audience, although the underlying principles are equally relevant, of course. Read the rest of this entry »

One of the first books I bought when I started here at LJMU was Kathleen Woodruff Wickham’s Math Tools for Journalists (Marion Street Press).

Math Tools for Journalists

Math Tools for Journalists

Despite the fact that it is, as one would expect, heavily biased towards American readers, it’s full of useful examples and exercises. I have the “professional/professor” version but, because I don’t own the student edition, I don’t know how the two editions differ. Certainly the worked problems are a good basis for creating classroom exercises, even though the specific chapters on Federal Statistics and Property Taxes need to be very heavily re-worked. The end-of-chapter learning challenges have helpful suggestions for extending students’ understanding.

By supplementing some of the material in  here with examples culled from recent newspapers, it’s easy to build up a library of real-life examples for students to work on. It always increases motivation if you can show students how the work they’re doing in the classroom is used in practice. A discussion of percentage change, for example, benefitted from me bringing in a copy of my local free paper, the Chester Standard, which reported the recent changes to council tax. I blanked out parts of the report (key figures, some of which had been rounded off) and got the students to fill in the blanks.

A UK editon, with detail of the London stock market, British council tax and less on the metric system, would be worthwhile.

Dirac – quantum genius

March 27, 2009

Delighted to have just received a copy of the new biography of Paul Dirac, The Strangest Man. Apart fromthe ocassionally technical Dirac: The Man and His Work, there doesn’t appear to be much available on the life of this most eccentric of mathematical physicists.

P A M Dirac

P A M Dirac

Dirac has long been one of my maths heroes (along with Richard Feynman and G H Hardy).

I’ve struggled with his lectures on quantum mechanics and general relativity and unfamiliar as I am with the mathematics, found them strangely fascinating, in particular where Dirac in a tour de force derives fundemental physical properties from the form that certain equations take.

Of course, it was an analysis of his wave equation for an electron that led Dirac to posit the existence of the positron, the antimatter particle which was only discovered experimentally four years later in 1932.

UPDATE (June 2): An article in New Scientist magazine claims the elusive monopole, also predicted by Dirac, may have been discovered. It is only the latest in a line of claimed discoveries (such as this in 2003 – registration required), but this time round seems convincing.