Friday, August 21, 2015

Cooking is to Math as Math is to Logic as Logic is to Rules, as Everything is to Reading: A Blog Post About The Mathematical and Storytelling Skills of Eugenia Cheng, Her Visit on September 19, and The Particular Delight of Novels About Math.

I am glad to say that after a several year hiatus, I am back on track of reading at least one math book per year. Last year got me back in the groove with Jordan Ellenberg's How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking. It was both enlightening and mind stretching, using aspects of everyday life to illuminate real problems. It was, as I called it, the Freakonomics of math.

So this year, I was reviewing lists of books and noticed that How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics had several things going for it. The book had an intriguing quote from Ellenberg himself: "Eugenia Cheng's charming new book embeds math in a casing of wry, homespun metaphors: math is like vegan brownies, math is like a subway map, math is like a messy desk. Cheng is at home with math the way you're at home with brownies, maths, and desks, and by the end of How to Bake Pi, you might be too."

The book even used the same color cover of How Not to Be Wrong, but I should note that when Ellenberg went into paperback, they Malcolm Gladwelled the cover, making it the stark white of that distinctive genre which I can't exactly describe but you know it when you see it. Maybe it's because that aqua blue is now being associated with comic literary novels such as Where'd You Go, Bernadette? and The Vacationers. But as you can see at right, it's also easier to read online, especially in reduced size, with the high contrast and larger subtitle.

How to Bake Pi really uses recipes as a jumping off point into general mathematical theory, and then later on, into Cheng's special interest of category theory, which is often known as the mathematics of mathematics. I love the way Cheng's mind works with these recipes, looking for how to substitute, how to generalize, and the way she takes apart recipes to see exactly why they work. I love the idea of comparing external thinking to internal thinking by comparing shopping to make a particular meal and finding interesting ingredients and then figuring out what to do with them.

I'm going to be completely frank here; lay people will sometimes get slightly lost, but Cheng's teaching method will quickly get you back on track. She has an uncanny way of explaining difficult concepts (a testament to her teaching skills, I would think) and brings in lots of anecdotes, not just from the recipes, but from her daily life in London and Chicago, the two places she's made home. Online shopping, tube station routes and prices, running marathons--they all become part of the math class, much the way my Swedish number theory teacher used to like to talk about soccer. (Cheng photo credit Round Turner Photography)

I think that both lay and professional mathematicians will love this book, with a special plug for math teachers at the high school and college level. This is the kind of book that says, "I will make you less afraid of math" and then does a good job at following through on that promise.

So we were trying to come up with a way to promote the How to Bake Pi event, being that Cheng had agreed to come up Boswell in Milwaukee to speak on Saturday, September 19, 2 pm, and I thought we should do some sort of interesting display. If you've heard me long-windedly discuss book display theory, my pet peeve is displays where we simply pull books out of a section that you could have found yourself if you browsed the section. You've got to bring together books that the browser wouldn't normally find.

Since Cheng did such a good job at telling stories, I thought, why not feature math fiction? I knew that we could come up with several titles without even doing research. Stuart Rojstaczer's The Mathematician's Shiva, which I also read last year, is more interested in mathematicians than math, but it's a fine book, having won Best First Novel from the National Jewish Book Awards.

And then there was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, which has seen a recent increase in sales because of its new status as a hit Broadway show. Not all mathematicians love the book, but just the chapter headings alone made the book memorable for me. This led to me noticing that there are two levels of math books, one with mathematicians sort of as general academics, and a higher level of novel that actually uses math in the story.

Todd immediately thought of John Green's An Abundance of Katherines, the story of a two guys who take a road trip when one, a former prodigy, has had enough of being dumped and tries to come up with a mathematical theory of love. Did I describe that right?

Jim Higgins at the Journal Sentinel reminded me of The Housekeeper and the Professor, the novel of the mathematician who has lost his short-term memory after an accident, who starts tutoring a young boy he nicknames Root. It was one of our first sleeper hits at Boswell after we opened in 2009.

Of course my first mathematical fiction love was Flatland, the classic novel by Edward Abbott. Let me just say, when I was in junior high, it pretty much blew my mind. At the time, I had no idea it was a parody of Victorian society. See how math and real life intersect? There's also a sequel called Sphereland, which I'm not sure I read.

I almost included Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, but I wasn't sure if Digitopolis played enough of a role in the story. But I was wrong. According to Wikipedia, the British edition has a recipe for subtraction stew! I mean what could be more appropriate for the blog. And another Norton Juster book absolutely made the list, The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics. It's the story of a line that has a thing for a dot, who in turn is charmed by a squiggle.

Another book I enjoyed reading was The Solitude of Prime Numbers. The author, Paolo Giordano, was a scientist, but the mathematical premise is that the characters, like prime numbers, never quite come together. They is always something between them, much like 11 and 13.

Here are some more books with mathematicians as the heroes:

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. No surprise that Stephenson would be dabbling in mathematical theory.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. Yes, one of the protagonists is a math student. See, you're not afraid of math after all.

Contact, by Carl Sagan. Sagan's most popular novel, which we shelve in science fiction, is about the quest for alien life, and features a mathematician, though of course an astronomer is truly the star of the story.

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. The late author even wrote a math book, Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. You know the story, about a movie so entertaining you can't do anything else, and how it affects a halfway house and a tennis academy. But did you know there's an extended mathematical proof in the story. I actually have read only one David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System, which of course was I think was an advance reader, and I had no idea who this fellow was. I just remember liking that it was set in Cleveland. I think I should start each year with a great task like reading Infinite Jest, but my plan to read Middlemarch fell flat, so these pronouncements can't be trusted. (Thanks early reader for catching the misplaced article!)

The list continued--Brazzaville Beach, by William Boyd, The Eight, by Katherine Neville, several novels by Thomas Pynchon but most notably Gravity's Rainbow, but then when I was chatting to someone in the know (Professor Ellenberg, it turned out, whose own novel, The Grasshopper King, is not about a mathematician but a poet), he clued me into this exhaustive list of math novels. Visitors rate their books both on their quality and their mathiness. Compiled by Alex Kasten at the College of Charleston, the list is obsessive and exhaustive and cannot be improved upon. OK, it can be improved in one way--his link to purchase button.

Speaking of which, we have a copy in stock of every book I have linked to, at least at the time of posting. If we're out of stock, we should have one back in shortly. If you follow the link in 2022, I cannot guarantee anything.

So there you are, a recipe for numerical and nutritional happiness. Consider making olive oil plum cake, baked Alaska, or raw chocolate cookies, and think about the mathematical concepts behind the recipe. Read a good math novel. And then come hear Eugenia Cheng discuss How to Bake Pi on Saturday, September 19, 2 pm at Boswell.

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