- Hardcover: 216 pages
- Publisher: Big Kid Science; Updated edition (November 1, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1937548368
- ISBN-13: 978-1937548360
- Product Dimensions: 1 x 6.2 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,221,078 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Math for Life: Crucial Ideas You Didn't Learn in School Hardcover – November 1, 2013
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“An insightful look at the crucial role mathematics plays in understanding the complexities of today’s society. . . . The author’s pleasant, conversational style shows that such insight can be developed without obscure or high-level computation. . . . Any reader, but especially parents, politicians, and professional educators, would benefit from reading this book. Summing up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries.” —Choice Magazine
“Full marks to Jeffrey Bennett for delivering exactly what his title promises. This is not the math your teacher (probably) said you would need in adult life but never did; it’s the math you know you need—but likely don't have.” —Keith Devlin, PhD, author, The Math Gene, and the Math Guy on National Public Radio
About the Author
Jeffrey Bennett is an astrophysicist and educator who proposed the idea for and helped develop the Voyage Scale Model Solar System—the first science-oriented exhibit approved for permanent installation on the National Mall in Washington, DC. He is the lead author of college textbooks in four subjects—astronomy, astrobiology, mathematics, and statistics—and has written critically acclaimed books for the general public including Beyond UFOs and On the Cosmic Horizon. He is also the author of children’s books, including those in the Science Adventures with Max the Dog series and The Wizard Who Saved the World. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.
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Top customer reviews
My slightly sour take on this book began with the discussion of the bubble in median housing prices on page 4. The term “median” was not even defined; it was simply equated with “average”, which tends to reinforce the mistaken notion that when someone says “average” they always mean “typical.” This would have been a great place to start untangling the differences between the common-language meaning of “average” (which always means typical) and the various math-language meanings of “average” (mean, median, mode, which may or may not correspond to “typical”). The difference between median and mean are clarified much later (p. 44-46), but I was very grumpy ‘til I got there.
The sloppy accuracy/precision discussion on p.21 didn’t help. That discussion involves two scales that measure weight, an analog scale that reads weight to the nearest pound, and a digital scale that reads out to the nearest 0.01 lb. Bennett goes on to say “This means that the digital scale is more precise.” That isn’t correct; in the scale context precision refers to the repeatability of measurements of the same weight, not how many digits there are in the readout. He knows that; he was just careless.
Obviously, a book of this type must simplify many things. But there is a line between simple and simplistic, and too often this book veers into simplistic and outright misleading. An example of the latter: in his discussion of the impending financial problems with Social Security, he says (p117) that “.. during the 20th century, life expectancies in the US rose an average of 3 years per decade. If that trend continues…” The 3 years/decade is more or less true, but it refers to the life expectancy at birth (with much of that gain due to a reduction in infant mortality early in the century). What matters to SS is life expectancy at retirement age. That has not grown at anything like 3 years/decade (if it had been, we would all expect to live well past 100).
His discussion of the US debt/deficit problem is also simplistic and misleading. For example, a bar chart on p108 shows the annual federal gov’t deficit and debt (not inflation-adjusted; a terrible choice) from 1970 to 2013, and in absolute terms rather than as a % of GDP (the standard and much more informative way to display that data). Clearly, his purpose was to create a maximally-scary plot rather than a more informative plot (which would have been scary enough).
In general, as Bennett’s discussion topics move away from the scientific/technical (his sweet spot) and wander into “softer” areas (such as economics), the discussions become increasingly simplistic, sloppy, misleading, and error-prone. Based on just this book, the answer to the question “Does Bennett have any clear sense of what he knows and what he doesn’t know?” would have to be a resounding “No.”
One of the better examples of that (one of many) is found on p145: “The bottom line is that global warming is real and poses a great threat to our future, and anyone who claims otherwise is either very bad at math or deliberately distorting the facts.” That last part is simply absurd. Bennett evidently has no understanding of the psychology/sociology of belief formation; he needs to read “Don’t Even Think About It” by Marshall. Climate change denial isn’t primarily about math and data, it’s about the ways the brain works and the social/political/ideological influences that conspire to produce particular beliefs.
There is a much to admire in this book, but it is very sloppy and misleading in spots; it could have benefitted from better pre-pub readers. His attempts to teach everyday math and its connection to real-world problems are laudable and often instructive. Bennett’s hopefully more rigorous textbooks (dealing with real-world math, statistics) might well be interesting and informative reads. But like all textbooks these days, they are too darn expensive.
So, a reluctant 3-star rating. I am sorry I have to rate such an error-filled and often misleading book so high, and sorry I have to rate a book with both great intentions and some excellent discussions so low. But there it is.
Bennett also makes some very questionable economic assumptions, overstating the danger of the country's debt crisis. He talks primarily about the dangers of absolute debt; most economists would consider Debt to GDP to be a far more important number. he never considers any option other than massive cuts to Social Security and Medicare, never considering the possibility of an economic growth. Also, his repetition of the argument that "the government should balance their books like a family," is wrong.