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One Hundred Essential Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know: Math Explains Your World Hardcover – May 18, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School—This collection of bloglike entries is not, as the title would have readers believe, a series of just-so stories, although occasional essays explain such everyday phenomena as why the other line always seems to move faster. More often, though, they are constructed around implausible hypotheticals (what if a soccer league changed scoring rules retroactively?) or end before fully explaining real-world implications. As the selections accumulate, however, it becomes clear that Barrow is interested not in how "math explains your world," but something more subtle: how the world illuminates math. Each piece is an access point to a different aspect of math: probability, trigonometry, algebra, calculus, and much more, but this is not a dry collection of derivations and theorems. Barrow's enthusiastic willingness to use any excuse (however slim) to employ math quickly becomes infectious, and the brevity that at first seems to truncate topics instead serves his holistic view of math as a joyous investigation of the world. As probably the largest population using higher-level math on a regular basis, teens are uniquely positioned to understand and share Barrow's enthusiasms. For those who find something mysterious and intriguing in solving an equation, this collection is a fascinating look into the mind of a professional mathematician and the way in which math can be not simply a row of numbers but a way of looking at the world.—Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

How can calculus prolong a life? In answering this surprising question, Barrow shares just one of the fascinating bits of mathematical lore he has collected here. Though unpredictably diverse, this treasury piquantly reminds readers of how much we err when we dismiss mathematics as a dryly academic specialty, cut off from the rhythms of real life. In fact, mathematical conundrums pop up in the most unexpected settings. Collectors of classic baseball cards, for instance, may be startled to learn that probability theory can guide shrewd strategies for swapping with other collectors. Similarly, the consumer making an online purchase will marvel at how linked prime numbers create the codes for a secure transaction. Even roller-coaster enthusiasts will discover that math accounts for the clothoid shape of the thrilling rides they enjoy most. A few of the forays demand some theoretical sophistication, but most are delightfully accessible to the nonspecialist. Where else does math become a romp, full of entertaining tricks and turns? --Bryce Christensen

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (May 18, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393070077
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393070071
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #578,124 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Hype rules the world. This book is promoted in a misleading way. There is nothing 'essential' about the one- hundred small math and science lessons Barrow gives us here. Ninety- nine percent of humanity will manage to get through their lives without knowing anything of what is written here.
On the other hand , for those who love Math, who care to understand the way the world works this book is a little treasure. Barrow is an extremely brilliant person and a very clear writer. He takes all kinds of problems here, and shows how mathematically we come to better understanding of them. Bridge- construction, choosing a card, demographics of the world, are among the subjects he tackles. I began to read this book and found it tremendously interesting. But again this is a work for those who like to understand latest developments in science and math. For them this should be a great read.
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45 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Edward Durney VINE VOICE on August 27, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Scientific American listed this book as "Also Notable," and the subtitle interested me, so I got it and read it. The title makes little sense -- I didn't find any essential things I didn't know that I didn't know. But I did find a lot about how math explains things in the real world. That I liked.

In the book John Barrow collects his thoughts on 100 topics, ranging from "Why Does the Other Queue [Barrow's British] Move Faster" to "How to Push a Car." Although the substance is rather similar to John Allen Paulos's A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, the style is quite different. In Barrow's book, each topic has a few pages each in an independent section. Paulos takes more of a chapter essay approach, with each chapter covering a broad topic and Paulos taking a rambling walk from beginning to end. Barrow writes well, and his approach works fine.

Some of the topics Barrow chooses are more interesting than others. I read them all, but did skim over some that did not quickly catch my interest. There are 100 of them, after all. For me, that was probably about 50 too many.

The main complaint I have about the book is that someone, perhaps the author or maybe an editor, decided that they had to convince the reader that each topic is important. They are not. These topics are interesting (to me, at least), but far from "essential." If you like math and physics, like me, you'll probably like the book. If you don't like math and physics, you probably won't like the book. It won't convert you.
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30 of 30 people found the following review helpful By James Neville on August 30, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I've just finished John D. Barrow's "100 Essential Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know" and recommend it highly.

In some ways it's more accessible than two of his other books I've just read, "The Infinite Book" and "Cosmic Imagery".

True they have more discussion (Infinite) and pictures (Imagery) but "100 Essential" manages to present key concepts in 2 to 4 pages each AND to tie them to immediately understandable real life examples.

For example, if you had 100 people to choose from to hire, your best strategy is to interview 37 and rate and dismiss them, then hire the next person you interview who's as good or better than the highest in the first 37 (sounds strange doesn't it!).

Or: Why the fact that interest rates are non-zero is evidence for the lack of time travel to the past (wait til you read that one!).

Or: Global Village Stats

Or: The whole world in a sheet of A4 paper

True some of the 100 points are repeats of things in "Infinite" and "Imagery" - but not too many and the numbers of new topics more than make up for the occasional repeat.

Truly this is a "Pocket Barrow" worth getting and sharing with your friends when you need an evocative discussion topic or three.
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By listener on February 8, 2010
Format: Hardcover
+ Many short chapters = easy to pick up and read in short bursts
+ Some interesting items here and there (IMHO)
- I wouldn't say that all 100 things are directly related to math.
- Sometimes Barrow would state a subject/problem and then immediately say something like "here is the equation you use to solve it". It would have been nice to discuss the *whys* of the equation and develop more of an intuitive feel. (There are a couple of times where he does discuss the equation from an intuition standpoint, but there are a lot of missed opportunities.)
- It's hard to determine the intended audience for this book. Sometimes the text seems intended for the layman that might have a mild interest in recreational math. But I think some of the math/notation would not be understood by most people.
- I'm not sure if this would be considered a negative, but a couple of the references to the sport of cricket may be difficult for US audiences to follow (it was for me).

In summary, this book did have some "jewels in the rough" for those who like recreational mathematics, but you would probably do better to look elsewhere. This book seems more like a random collection of things that the author finds interesting but are far from "essential" as the title indicates. This book is definitely not for "brushing up" on your math skills, and I wouldn't even recommend it if you are looking for something to increase your math skills.
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