Book Review: The Joy of x

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The Book

The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity, by Steven Strogatz

The Premise

Steven Strogatz, a mathematics professor at Cornell, had a math blog (On the Elements of Math) at the New York Times for a while in 2010. This is a collection of those blog posts edited into book form.

Fun with math

I read On the Elements of Math when it was new. The topics were varied and interesting,and the writing was clear. It was equally fun to review things I knew (e.g. explaining the Pythagorean theorem by drawing squares on the triangle's sides) and learn about things I hadn't encountered before (e.g. the Hilbert Hotel problem). I enjoyed it and was sorry to see it come to an end.

It has been a few years since then, and I had forgotten the specifics of the blog when I picked up The Joy of x. (It was kind of interesting just to see which parts I recalled versus what felt like new material.) The topics are still interesting, the stories are still chosen well, and the writing is still clear. I think I enjoyed the first few chapters again as much as I had when I'd read them in blog-post form.

But by the fourth or fifth chapter, my enthusiasm started to lag.

The chapters were starting to sound the same. They had essentially the same structure: identify a potential limitation of math, relate anecdote or pop culture reference, explain the problem in the story, end with a punch line. The chapters are short, so it's easy to run through the pattern several times in one sitting, and it gets repetitive quickly.

I set the book aside and read something else. When I did pick it up again, I read only a chapter at a time and found it much improved. It was like returning to the blog: only one post at a time and a break between one and the next. It's a funny way for me to read a book,1 but it worked.

The Bottom Line

It's a fun survey of mathematics by someone who obviously loves the subject. No math expertise is necessary to follow along. Read it a bit at a time, like it was originally delivered.

1: I'm a devourer, a binge-reader. I have been known to read lengthy series in a week or weekend and I read the final Harry Potter book in a single sitting the night I bought it. Reading a book in little bites is not like me.

Some things I've enjoyed recently

  • Type:Rider, a game about the history of typography. It's beautiful and fun.
  • This post at Wandering Scientist. I love the two quotes at the end.
  • This post at the Chronicle of Higher Education blog. I'm bothered whenever I hear someone preaching about the "real world" and how students aren't prepared for it. The "real" world is full of real people who should be treated with respect and kindness. We gain nothing by dismissing our students.
  • Forbidden Island, my new favorite puzzle (it's a digitized board game, but I've been playing the local multiplayer solo)
  • 2048, which has usurped sudoku as my go-to time-waster. (Thanks a lot, @chemjobber)
  • iThoughts, an iOS/Mac mind-mapping app I've used for a year or two that was recently updated with some nice improvements.
  • This post at Penny Arcade on the use and purpose of Twitter was amusing. I also worry at times that my tweets aren't "good enough." Plus, I have a soft spot for Austen references.
  • This Periodic Table by Compound Interest is pretty cool.
  • It's not nearly as recent as the rest of this list, but I've really been enjoying the Points of Significance column at Nature Methods, and the Points of View column before it. My statistics background is much weaker than I'd like, so it's nice to have a primer. Points of View is similarly helpful for tips on designing figures.