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The Mathematics of Life

3.59  ·  Rating details ·  451 ratings  ·  48 reviews
Biologists have long dismissed mathematics as being unable to meaningfully contribute to our understanding of living beings. Within the past ten years, however, mathematicians have proven that they hold the key to unlocking the mysteries of our world--and ourselves. In The Mathematics of Life, Ian Stewart provides a fascinating overview of the vital but little-recognized ...more
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published June 7th 2011 by Basic Books (first published January 1st 2011)
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 ·  451 ratings  ·  48 reviews

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Mar 09, 2013 rated it liked it
My fiance is a mathematician and I am a biologist. One of his professors reviewed this book, and he wound up with a copy. I wanted to like this book, I really did. And there were parts of it that were quite good. The treatment of Darwin was very good -- even though I have read quite a bit about Darwin's life, I still found it enlightening. The there were lively overviews of networked systems and emergent behavior, and the philosophical/logical discussions of what life is and whether it could ...more
Sep 12, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: mathematics, biology
Having dealt with mathematics as applied to physics all of my professional life, this book provides a welcome change. What amazed me is the sheer variety of mathematical approaches that are being applied to biology, including Fibonacci sequences, networks, cellular automata, topology, game theory, multi-dimensional geometries. I had no idea that Alan Turing did work with reaction-diffusion equations, that can be used to model patterns in animal skin stripes versus spots.

The book is written very
Koen Crolla
Stewart argues that mathematics is becoming increasingly important in biology; an uncontroversial enough point.
In trying to demonstrate this he is alternately very careful (the first few chapters and large swathes of the later ones serve no apparent purpose other than to show that he bothered to open a college-level textbook at some point during his research for this book; presumably he's trying to pre-empt the criticism that usually applies to people who write outside their field, but I like to
Elena (ReasonstoRead)
Wow! Quite a dense book. When you first start this book, it almost seems like it's going to be an easy read. If you have a background in the sciences or biology, you'll notice even more how easy of a read it is. Boy does it turn out to be otherwise. I kept reading through this book for months. I have finally finished it, truthfully by skimming the last twenty pages or so. I'm entering a quick review of it, but I intend to go back to it this year and read it one chapter at a time again. Really, ...more
Sergio Rico
Apr 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
Excellent book! Worth reading if you have biology or math interest. My only complaint is the on the chapter on aliens ... a bit unnecessary to say the least.
Mar 04, 2016 rated it liked it
I had a notion of Biology as a safe-haven for students challenged by Mathematics. Author Ian Stewart deals a permanent blow to this notion in this book . He says that Biology is at the cusp of what he calls a sixth revolution. According to him, the Life Sciences have gone through five revolutions in the past. They are as follows:
(i) the invention of the Microscope,
(ii) the systematic Classification of Earth's living creatures,
(iii) the theory of Evolution,
(iv) the discovery of the Gene and
Jun 14, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: mathematics
Did you know that there are 300,000 species of plants, 30,000 species of fungi and 1.25 million species of animals of which 1.2 million are invertebrates (lack a backbone)or that the majority of viruses are icosahedral(20 sided)or helical in shape. Ian Stewart has sprinkled these knowledge nuggets throughout his book, The Mathematics of Life. In the first third of this book he also provides a well done capsule history of biology by discussing the five revolutions in biology: the ...more
Nov 25, 2013 rated it liked it
This book was tricky. If you read the first few chapters, youll start to wonder that youve made a mistake and picked up a book thats going to be TOO easy to read. Youll start with the history of the microscope and the structure of DNA, and re-read things you learned in high-school biology like the structure of a cell or how plants and animals are classified into various orders or kingdoms.

After being lulled into a false-sense of security, youll learn about how the spirals in the head of a
Lois Keller
Apr 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
I thought this was an amazing piece of non-fiction. I would very highly recommend this book to just about anyone.

Why? Stewart is one of those people who's real calling in life is too teach, and it permeates every chapter of this book. Although I am not a biologist, I felt like I could follow and understand the basic biology concepts used in this book after freshman year biology. However, I can not attest to accuracy in a lot of his claims on biology for that reason also - it would be nice to
Feb 12, 2012 rated it it was ok
Stewart's primary argument is that mathematics is a revolution to biological sciences on the order of the microscope, DNA, Mendelian genetics, Darwin, and classification of species. The first part of the book, which he spends discussing each of these biological revolutions in turn is well-written and easily followed. The second part of the book is more mixed in its successes. In instances, Stewart takes exceedingly complicated mathematics and explains them in brilliantly simplistic terms for the ...more
Ken Ransom
Mar 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: stem-math
For readers with painful memories of high-school algebra and geometry, this book about mathematics is for you. You'll understand and enjoy Stewart's explanations of population growth, speciation, brain function, chaos, Darwin and evolution, and game theory, networking, symmetry and even the mechanism that produces animal stripes and spots.

All chapters begin with basics, but if you don't have a wee bit of scientific background it can be a struggle to the end. But it is written so well that it is
Hom Sack
Sep 09, 2011 rated it it was ok
There is very little mathematics in this book about biology. What little there is is not all that interesting. Nevertheless, the topics covered could have been made more engaging and better explained had they been accompanied by animation. The book would have been ideal written in the new Wolfram Research Computable Document Format (CDF). Instead, it only has black and white illustrations that mostly appear after the page cited.
Josh McDevitt-Spall
Oct 11, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
Even a giant math nerd like myself found some of this difficult to follow. Appreciated finally learning to understand the Fibonacci connection to flowers, but after that it kinda became way too deep into the applied physics of DNA proteins for me.
Chris Webber
Aug 22, 2011 rated it really liked it
Awesome. If you like the mating of math and science to explain the complexities of the world around you, you will love this book.
Jul 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I m also a biology studen but this book give me to think also from mathematics angle in biological world nd there Twist nd turn...
Bryan Higgs
Jul 16, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: mathematics, biology
I am a fan of Ian Stewart. I own several of his earlier books, all of which I have read and enjoyed immensely. So, I had high expectations of this book, his latest. However, I was disappointed. But perhaps it is more my own biases than any failings on Prof. Stewart's part that explain this. I was educated in Physics and Mathematics -- I have a Ph.D. in Experimental High Energy Particle Physics -- and gave up Biology in school at the age of about 14, because I couldn't stand having to copy ...more
Feb 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book has proved to me yet again that in order to become a mathematician you must have high levels of sarcasm and wit. Very entertaining. In addition, Stewart explains everything so well, and I learned more from the first twenty pages of this book than from a year of high school biology (but let's be honest here it's not like high school biology is really comparable with anything...). It was very well organised with no confusion, and it is definitely a book I will be purchasing a copy of as ...more
Doc Kinne
Apr 24, 2013 rated it really liked it
A better book than I originally gave it credit for, and an amazingly educational book for me. The writing was good and clear, and there was surprisingly little mathematics in a book that is titled The Mathematics of Life. What Stewart did was deal in concepts, which you can actually more readily do in higher mathematics. He was so good at it at one point that the chapter "Viruses from the Fourth Dimension" finally had me understanding n-dimensional mathematics. You would think that I would have ...more
Aug 06, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I have long enjoyed Ian Stewart's mathematics books. This one started off pretty slow, but got better as the book went on. The first four chapters were a bit of a waste; from chapter ten onwards, the book became quite rewarding.

This is, obviously, a layman's book about advances in biology. Unlike most popular science books, however, this one assumes a mathematical background on behalf of the layman. Whether this works or not will depend on the reader. I found it quite useful, as concepts in
Nov 23, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: science
Stewart touches briefly on some of the many ways in which mathematics, just because it simplifies and idealizes situations, can point biologists to explanations of the extraordinarily complex processes they study. Examples include n-dimensional geometry to predict viral structures, number theory's contributions to Mendel, chaos theory to explain the conundrum posed by the huge variety of species in plankton exploiting a single environmental niche, game theory applied to interspecies ...more
Daniel R.
Aug 31, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: mos
The book explores the author's premise that mathematics is the sixth revolution to impact biology following those of the microscope, classification, evolution, genetics, and DNA's structure. The first third of the book examines the history of each of those revolutions and the impact on biology. The remainder of the book consists of vignettes about the interplay between mathematics and biology. The breadth of material exposed me to fascinating tidbits about animal patterns, evolutionary niches, ...more
Dec 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own
inspiring book illustrating current life forms have not only a biology basis but also link with mathematics & laws of physics.

I especially appreciated the second part of the book, dealing with hallucinations, patterns on fishes, stripes on tigers, the folding of proteins, the likeliness on non-Earth life forms, Fibonacci & evolution, ...

Little prior knowledge is needed, although some logic & mathematics affiliation comes in handy.

Recommended to everyone who wonders on the beauty of
Feb 23, 2014 rated it liked it
I enjoyed this book. At some points, the mathematical concepts might have been above my level, but otherwise, the author did a good job of keeping the math understandable. He stressed throughout the book how interdisciplinary biology is, especially with mathematics, and showed how mathematical concepts as symmetry and the golden ratio are intertwined with biology. My favorite chapters involved the golden ratios found in botany, viruses, and the chances of life on other planets.
Jul 27, 2012 rated it really liked it
I felt like it was mostly a history of science, highlighting the role that mathematics has played in the development of scientific discoveries in the past 150 years.

Well written and engaging for sure, but it is mostly something that motivates you to look for more in depth discussions of the details.
Feb 25, 2013 rated it really liked it
An interesting look at how biology and math intersect. Lots of fascinating quirks of nature that have a mathematical twist, and a convincing argument that biology needs mathematicians to go further. Stewart relies heavily on analogies to explain some of his concepts, so if you are the type of person who likes analogies to understand new ideas, you will love this.
In general this was pretty good, but he didn't quite make his case that Biology is about to undergo a mathematical revolution. It also lost its way in the final few chapters, where I think he ran out of relavant things to say, so searched the history books for fringe opinions that people held 20 years ago to show that maths shows it to have been wring, despite most people always having known that
Peter Flom
Jun 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
Ian Stewart is a very good (and prolific) popularizer of mathematics. In this volume, he looks at the relationships between mathematics and biology, from evolution to DNA to the search for extra-terrestrial life. Excellent read.
A.K. Klemm
Jul 03, 2016 rated it really liked it
Great book, I felt like the writer lost his wind about halfway through, though - or maybe I just started reading parts about things I've already read a lot on. Still, it's definitely worth your time.
Aug 22, 2011 rated it liked it
Fascinating but very difficult to slog through. I'm not a math whiz and I really felt like you needed to be pretty conversant in math for this to be mind-blowing, like I was hoping it would be. So one day after I get my math down, I'll revisit this one :)
Matthew Dambro
May 15, 2015 rated it liked it
An adequate exposition of mathematics in the pursuit of biological research. There are some factual errors but Dr. Stewart tries to give an overview of the increasing use of biomathematics. It is a good introduction to the subject but only an introduction.
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Ian Nicholas Stewart is an Emeritus Professor and Digital Media Fellow in the Mathematics Department at Warwick University, with special responsibility for public awareness of mathematics and science. He is best known for his popular science writing on mathematical themes.
--from the author's website

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