Will Byrnes's Reviews > The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty

The Universe and the Teacup by K.C. Cole
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's review
May 19, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: science, non-fiction, brain-candy
Read in February, 2010

This is a popular science book that offers a very accessible look at how math figures in our lives, well beyond the obvious. What I found most interesting was the conclusion that math is not the bottom line hard truth we might think it to be. Everything, even math, depends on context and probability. There are many interesting notions considered here.

Chapter 5 goes into detail on how a difference in scale can also represent a difference ion kind. Cole relates how scale would make it impossible for a sixty foot man to hold himself up with a body anything like the 6 foot variety. Height increases only in one dimension, area in two, volume in three. If you doubled the height of a man, the cross section, or thickness, of muscle that supports him against gravity would quadruple (two times two) and his volume and therefore weight would increase by a factor of eight. To bear such weight would require stout, thick legs. Think elephant or rhino. It called to mind a bit of personal experience. I grew up in the West Bronx, where lived the then tallest man in the world, Eddie Carmel, who measured about 8 foot 9 inches. Poor Mister Carmel was beset by a body that was incapable of comfortably carrying his mass. He walked with a cane, stooped over, and did not live anywhere close to three score and ten years, a sad example of math in action. Fleas form the opposite end of this spectrum. While their muscles are many orders of magnitude weaker than ours, the mass they have to push around is so much smaller that it makes each ant and flea into a superbeing. Leaping over tall buildings does not pose a problem.

K.C. Cole

A chapter titled Voting: Lani Guinier was Right holds a fascinating discussion of democratic methods and structures, and Chapter 11, The Mathematics of Kindness: Math Proves the Golden Rule, are both enlightening. I have a different take on the latter than the author, parallel, not contrary, but both chapters are thought-provoking.

Probability comes in for some heavy, and interesting inspection as well. I would expect the odds are better than even that if you have any interest at all in how things work, enjoy learning new things, or just like accumulating interesting bites of info about life at large, you will enjoy this very easy-to-read book.

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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Cillian (new) - added it

Cillian Stop selling me books, Will!
My wallet can't take it.

Will Byrnes Library?

Jessica Gramby Okay, I'll look into it when I can.
Have a good day/night.

message 4: by Cillian (new) - added it

Cillian Will wrote: "Library?"

If only...their science section is not very large.

message 5: by Rand (new)

Rand Thankfully, any US library is kind enough to loan a book to a patron of a library system from a different city.

Glad to hear that the math of Keats's famous identity property is a fuzzy one, Will. Nice reviewing.

message 6: by Sidharth (new)

Sidharth Panwar It reminds me of an author who speculated about the great number of "fine balances" which are required to sustain life. A very thought provoking assertion which leads to other deeper questions.

message 7: by Steve (new)

Steve I heard this second-hand and may not have it quite right, but there is evidently an interview question that has you imagine yourself to be miniaturized and stuck into a milk bottle 5 times bigger than you. Then they ask how you might try to get out. The answer they like best is when you give the reverse of your example -- simply use your enhanced power-to-weight ratio to jump out (power being a function of the cross-sectional measures of muscle and mass being related to three-dimensional measures). Your power decreases by the square of the scale factor, but your mass decreases by the cube.

Anyway, the better question is how the Mets, against all probabilistic models ever formulated, finished second in their division!

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