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The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty Paperback – April 15, 1999

ISBN-13: 978-0156006569 ISBN-10: 0156006561 Edition: New edition

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"Pure mathematics," Albert Einstein once remarked, "is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas." In The Universe and the Teacup, Los Angeles Times science writer K. C. Cole discusses some of the ways this "poetry" can be used to look at science and other realms of experience.

Mathematics, Cole explains, enables us to "translate the complexity of the world into manageable patterns," whether we're trying to comprehend the risks of smoking or the usefulness of DNA matches in criminal investigations. Cole also looks at how mathematical principles apply in unexpected fields. One chapter, for example, vindicates the theories on voting rights that cost Lani Guinier her Justice Department nomination in 1993.

Without relying on a single equation, Cole's gently humorous prose helps make mathematics unthreatening to laypeople, enabling them to better understand the world in which they live. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

A short paean to mathematics in the vein of Cole's earlier volume, Sympathetic Vibrations (1984), which explored creativity, art, and beauty in relation to physics. Curiously, however, Cole, a science writer for the Los Angeles Times, does not really lead the reader into mathematical waters so much as point to the special features and charms of a mathematical perspective. No need to wrestle with equations here. Instead, Cole surveys mathematical concepts, which she groups into four parts. Part one exposes the unreality of large numbers to most of us and the human propensity to interpret risk in all the wrong ways (e.g., the risk of flying compared to that of one's everyday commute on a beltway). Part two deals with measurement and scale, noting that what we decide to measure can in itself be questionable--like intelligence--and depends on what we know. ``Astronomy is a humbling science in this regard,'' Cole says, because every time a new way to measure the universe is found, astronomers discover new types of objects. Part three covers the social world with replays here of game theory, why altruism can pay off, and how right Lani Guinier was in questioning the ``sacred ideal of majority rule.'' Lastly, she pursues the mathematics of truth as revealed in rules of probability and logic, but especially at the core of our conceptions of the universe. Here she discusses Einstein's special and general theories of relativity, singling out Emmy Noether, the brilliant German mathematician whose proof that the laws of conservation in physics are equivalent to laws of symmetry resolved questions raised about Einstein's four-dimensional space-time. Alas, Cole doesn't tell us how that was done. In sum, lots of good ideas, telling examples, and even amusing trivia that point to the importance of math, yet without revealing how mathematicians work. (line art) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; New edition edition (April 15, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156006561
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156006569
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #780,417 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

The writing rambles almost aimlessly.
Wesley L. Janssen
Despite the title, not once in this book is an actual mathematical problem presented coherently.
Scott J. Aaronson
I purchased this book for a math project I had to do in college math.
K. Cunningham

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Wesley L. Janssen VINE VOICE on April 3, 2002
Format: Paperback
Chapter two, second paragraph: "The Milky Way galaxy contains 200 billion stars..."
Chapter two, a few pages later: "Fifteen billion is also more or less the number of stars in the galaxy." Obviously, the number of stars in the galaxy is not precisely known, but we do know that 15 billion and 200 billion are two different things. One of the author's "truths" is self-evidently not true. Purveyors of "truth and beauty", whether scientists, gurus, philosophers, spiritual leaders, or journalists, often regard their subject and their audience far too casually. Here we have a case in point. Perhaps most books contain 'typos' and the miscues inherent to humanity, but here it seems that both the author and the editor were asleep at the wheel, something that needs to be addressed if the book achieves a second printing (and I don't see why that would happen).
The subject is truly fascinating; or at least it should be -- the relationship of aesthetics, mathematics, and logic. At the deepest levels of the human intellect's inquiries, the answers are all about a mysterious mathematical beauty. The reality of this escapes most people, which is why the "National Bestseller" heading on the cover of Cole's book intrigued me. Apparently the book has enjoyed a larger readership than most such popularizations. Unfortunately the superficial, disjoined 'newspaper style' of science serves the material poorly. The writing rambles almost aimlessly. The books of many mathematicians and physicists have examined the relationship of reality, reason, mathematics, and aesthetics. Devlin's 'The Language of Mathematics' is very good. Fairly recent works by Penrose, Davies, Rucker, Berlinski, Greene, and others come to mind. Some of these books are far better than others. This volume is one of the others.
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45 of 52 people found the following review helpful By Scott J. Aaronson on April 19, 1998
Format: Hardcover
Despite the title, not once in this book is an actual mathematical problem presented coherently. Instead, Cole drones on about the virtues of cooperation, the importance of minorities, and other left-wing philosophical themes. I'm a liberal and would tend to agree with her politically, but that ignores the central problem with this book: Cole's failure to make the distinction between mathematics itself and beliefs that just happen to be justified by statistics or quasi-mathematical reasoning.
Perhaps The Universe and the Teacup is best described as a meta-popularization, since virtually all of Cole's sources are themselves popularizations. She hypes such familiar staples of popular science writing as fuzzy logic, chaos and complexity theory ("all the rage these days" -- I thought that's what they said back in the 80's), and Godel's theorem (both "a shattering blow" AND "a staggering blow to our sense of certainty"), without showing that she understands any of these things on more than a superficial level. (I don't claim to be an expert on these topics, either, but then again I didn't write a book about them.)
For general readers interested in how mathematics relates to everyday life, I'd recommend John Allen Paulos "Innumeracy"; for a survey of modern mathematics, both "From Here To Infinity" by Ian Stewart and "Archimedes' Revenge" by Paul Hoffman succeed where "The Universe and the Teacup" fails.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By J. Paul Holbrook on April 18, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I expected more from K.C. Cole; she's an excellent general science writer for the L.A. Times, but she comes up short in this book. This book is clearly trying to bring an appreciation of math to general readers, but she does no better than to say "Look at that over there; if you understand it, it's really neat" -- but without trying to give you any sense of what's neat.
By contrast, I highly recommend "The Language of Mathematics : Making the Invisible Visible" by Keith J. Devlin. Devlin not only points out what is interesting, but provides enough depth to give you a fleeting glimpse of the way mathematicians see math.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 23, 1998
Format: Hardcover
It gives me no pleasure to agree with so many of the write-in comments to amazon.com and to disagree with the many published critics regarding Ms. Cole's book. I expect I'd like her in person and am sympathetic to her objectives in writing this book, but it reads like a book about music written by someone who writes well but is tone-deaf.
It's unfortunate none of her many friends in the technical fields seem to have been adequately critical in discussing her book before its publication.
Rather than either attempt a lengthy explanation or engage in unsubstantiated assertions, I'll give two simple examples of what's so troubling about the book.
Page 57 has a poorly reasoned and inadequate discussion of error bars. The example cited is one where person A scores 98 on an IQ test and person B scores 101, both with "error plus or minus 3". First, Cole says, this "tells you absolutely nothing", which is absolutely false. She goes on to explain what it's supposed to tell you: there's a .5 probability that the test scores are within 3 points of the actual IQs. Then she asserts "that means the person scoring 98 could be superior to the person scoring 101 by three points." Notice that superiority has been implicitly defined to be a matter of IQ, which is troubling. But what Cole is missing is that while it may be true that A may have an IQ 3 points higher than B's, it's also true A may have an IQ higher than B by 4, 5, or 6 points. Further, the relative scores are more likely not to be reversed in this manner, and B is likely to score higher on subsequent tests too. Of course, in making these assertions, I'm making lots of assumptions. In particular, that the error is something like a bell-shaped curve that doesn't drop off to zero at 4, 5, or 6.
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