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Group Theory in the Bedroom, and Other Mathematical Diversions First Edition Edition

10 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0809052196
ISBN-10: 0809052199
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In charming prose that more or less makes up for the relative lack of rigor in many of his explorations, about which Hayes is refreshingly honest (I see no reason to doubt this assumption, at least as an approximation, but I also have no evidence to support it), science and technology journalist Hayes (Infrastructure) explains the engineering and arithmetic of clocks and gears, wracks his brain over questions of how best to flip a mattress and visits the prettiest wrong idea in all of twentieth-century science... the vision of piglets suckling on messenger RNA. As he examines huge calculating tables rendered obsolete by computers, Hayes cannot help wondering which of my labors will appear equally quaint and pathetic to some future reader. This observation is echoed by the afterwords where Hayes addresses pointed questions and observations from readers, displaying a brave willingness to admit error and acknowledge advances made since these pieces were first published in the Sciences and American Scientist. Present-day readers would do best to approach this collection more for its literary merits than its revelation of obscure history or cutting-edge mathematical theory. 41 b&w illus. (Apr.)
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“As much as any book I can name, Group Theory in the Bedroom conveys to a general audience the playfulness involved in doing mathematics: how questions arise as a form of play, how our first attempts at answering questions usually seem naive in hindsight but are crucial for finding eventual solutions, and how a good solution just feels right.” —David Austin, Notices of the AMS
Group Theory in the Bedroom and Other Mathematical Diversions is a marvelous collection of thought-provoking essays that both inform and entertain. You’ll be amazed by the things you’ll discover in these stories.” —Ron Graham, professor of mathematics, computer science and engineering, University of California, San Diego, former chief scientist of AT&T, and past president of the American Mathematical Society, the Mathematical Association of America and the International Jugglers Association
“Brian Hayes’s book is a refreshing collection of superb mathematical essays. Ranging from choosing up sides to choosing names, the topics are intriguingly nonstandard. Moreover, the writing is clean, the explanations are pellucid, and the effect on the reader is exhilarating. First-rate all the way through.” —John Allen Paulos, author of Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences and the forthcoming Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up
"Every essay in this book is a gem of science writing on its highest level—accurate, up to date, brimming with surprising information, deep insights, and a profound love of mathematics. Its scope is awesome. Topics include a fantastic clock in Strasbourg, randomness, poverty, war, geology, genetics, gear ratios, partitions, nomenclature, group theory, and the ambiguity of the equals sign. There isn't a dull page in the book." —Martin Gardner, author of The Colossal Book of Short Puzzles and Problems and more than 60 other titles

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; First Edition edition (April 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809052199
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809052196
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #218,009 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

37 of 38 people found the following review helpful By William Gronos on April 30, 2008
Format: Hardcover
If you liked the book "Freakonomics: a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything" (which I loved), there is a good chance you will like this one too. The author may have screwed-up giving it the title he did and by adding "and Other Mathematical Diversions", as it may put off or scare off a lot of people who would find it enjoyable. One would be hard pressed to find a mathematical equation anywhere in the book.

Take for instance the first chapter, "Clock of Ages", on the astronomical clock located in the Strasbourg Cathedral, in the city of Strasbourg, Alsace. Though the current version of the clock dates from 1843, not only was it designed to be Y2K compliant, it is also Y10K functional, designed to directly display the current year up to 9999 and the only revision needed to make it correct for subsequent years would be to paint the number "1" to the left of the display. It will continue to display such events as the correct date for Easter even in the year 19999 (Easter falls on April 3rd in 11842). Though solely a mechanical device, the gears of the clock were designed to be accurate to an error of less than one second per century. There is a gear in the clock that turns only once every 2,500 years and the celestial sphere out in front of the clock will complete one full precessional cycle after the passage of 25,806 years.

After his discussion of the beauty of the design of this clock, the author then takes up a philosophical discussion of time, asking if anyone will still care what date Easter will be in 11842, or even if we will still be counting in years of the Common Era.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Peter Webb on October 22, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I was disappointed in this book. Its title suggests that it will contain recreational mathematics, but it contains almost no mathematics at all - not a single equation. Group theory is a subject that has been covered extensively in recreational mathematics, and the author chooses to illustrate it using the symmetries of rotating a mattress. On the way, he ruminates extensively on the subject of mattresses. If you don't know what a "group" is now, after reading this book you will be none the wiser, if you do know, you will wonder why he says so little about the subject. You will learn a lot about how different manufacturers recommend you turn their matresses, but I didn't care before and still don't.

I have similar problems with the other chapters; he interweaves the theory of gear ratios in clocks with that of rational approximations (a natutal fit) but never really explains the mathematics, and instead its more of a story about how he tracked down the original historical sources of where gear ratios were first calculated ...

The chatty and informal style would have worked better in a magazine column, which is where these came from.

If you want a book about mathematics which itself contains virtually no mathematics, and you want something light and easily read, which covers a wide range of topics, sure.

If you know what a "group" is (or a continued fraction) and want to see if he brings a new twist to these old subjects, I think you will be diappointed.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By K. Scott Proctor VINE VOICE on August 15, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an excellent collection of thought-provoking essays related to mathematics. Brian Hayes covers a wide array of topics through the lens of mathematics in an engaging, thought-provoking and entertaining manner.

The essays contained in this book, addressing topics such as the genetic code, the Continental Divide and randomness, among other topics, vary widely in subject matter, but share a common underlying theme. Specifically, each of these essays asks the reader to examine "things," such as the genetic code, from a unique perspective. Moreover, Hayes pulls the reader through a thoughtful and insightful problem framing approach that has broad applications across many disciplines.

I found the content and style across each essay to be first-rate. This book teaches the reader many things...most importantly, I feel it offers rare insight into the power of shifting perspective and framing problems.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on August 6, 2009
Format: Paperback
As a mathematician I am frequently given popular books about mathematics as gifts, but most of these aren't interesting to me. Usually they cover topics that are already very familiar to me, and frequently they aim to "blind the reader with science" about topics in pure mathematics that are difficult to connect to the real world in a very convincing way. And frankly, as an applied mathematician, it's disappointing that so many mathematics popularizers fixate so much on prime numbers, Fermat's last theorem and other frippery.

This book has none of these flaws, and it is one I would have happily received as a gift. It's a fascinating collection of essays about applied and computational mathematics. Brian Hayes has chosen topics that haven't been beaten to death by other authors, and written thoughtful pieces about all of them. Stand-out chapters for me included the chapter on coming up with an algorithm for computing the location of the watershed in a terrain, and an essay tracing the succession of failed attempts to solve the genetic code. The watershed chapter is great, because the author describes how he tried to solve the problem over the course of a vacation without access to a library to see what the "right answer" is, and he records his missteps and failed attempts to come up with an algorithm. It's a great glimpse at how problem-solving works: so few mathematicians are prepared to let you in on the process including the failed attempts that allowed them to build their elegant structure, be it a proof, algorithm, or solution.

The level assumed of the reader is such that a college student or eager high school student would probably get a lot from the book. There are very few equations and no program code snippets, which is generally the right choice.
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