I actually finished reading this book a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve been so caught up in other things that I forgot to post my thoughts on it. And since I’m persona non grata at my old fediverse haunt, this is probably the only place you’ll see 2020’s entries in the Summer Reading List Challenge.
Title: Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors
Author: Matt Parker
Genre: Popular science
The author is an Australian living in Britain, so you’ll have to forgive the misspelling in the title. Never fear, however. The rest of the book more than makes up for it. Humble Pi is a fun little look at some of history’s oddest, funniest, or occasionally deadliest math fails. The Gimli Glider, a jet airliner forced to land on an airstrip definitely not built for it, all because someone read the intended fuel load in pounds instead of kilograms. NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter, which crashed into the Red Planet because of a similar units mix-up. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the “flash crash” of 2010, overflow bugs, and secret islands, all these and more are covered in an irreverent, yet knowledgable, style.
I consider myself a recreational mathematician. I’ve read books about numbers and math since I could read, so going on 35 years now. I love this kind of thing. And I’ll admit that I already knew of most of the stories in Humble Pi, but not always the details. Parker does a good job of explaining those to the lay reader, while keeping the interest of someone who doesn’t need hand-holding. He’s deliberately vague in a few cases, which irks me. Fortunately, those don’t distract, and he makes up for it with good descriptions of things non-experts wouldn’t even care to learn. SQL injection attacks, for instance. Or statistics as a whole.
All in all, unless you’re deathly allergic to numbers, you’ll be entertained. Why? Because you get to see that, no matter how much everyone wishes it would, math just doesn’t go away. And people make mathematical mistakes the same as in any other field. Which is great for readers, as who doesn’t like to laugh at a billion-dollar corporation or government agency failing at something we’re taught in elementary school?