[A]s Parker makes plain in his engaging and fascinating book, there is no escaping the fact that today’s world is largely built on mathematics: computers, gaming, finance, engineering, you name it – it’s all maths in different guises. So all sorts of apparently innocuous mathematical mistakes can have serious consequences... [Parker] lays out the difference between sequential and overlapping runs of heads and tails in coin flips and the difference between transitive and non-transitive relations, and explains how to use a set of non-transitive dice to win drinks and money off your friends and family. To add to the fun, Parker has also left three deliberate mistakes in the book and asks the reader to let him know if they catch them all.
Matt Parker is a mathematician with a sense of mischief. On reading a claim that many megalithic sites were linked together in isosceles triangles, the comedian and former maths teacher wondered if the same could be true of ancient branches of Woolworths. Sure enough, from the locations of 800 former stores, he found a series of triangular patterns. “It is a mathematical certainty,” he writes, “that you can find any pattern you want, as long as you’re prepared to ignore enough data.” Humble Pi, which has shot into the Sunday Times bestseller lists, is a fun collection of stories about maths going wrong. Or at least, maths being not quite right. It is a much better read than that sounds.
Parker is consistently very funny... Computers, indeed, are a rich source of examples of when maths goes wrong. Databases, Parker points out, are only as good as the data entered into them, and bad data can be worse than none at all. Most pragmatically, he points to a multitude of real-world threats created by the widespread habit of using Microsoft’s Excel software as an ersatz database, rather than as a simple spreadsheet manager... It would be easy to blame poor Excel for such garbling – except that, as Parker insists, people really shouldn’t be using it that way in the first place.
From morals to maths. The latter isn’t a subject one associates with humour, so Matt Parker seems either brave or foolish to describe himself as a stand-up mathematician. He’s good at what he does, though: Humble Pi is an entertaining and often alarming journey through the numerical blunders made over the years by scientists, engineers and politicians, and the consequences. Planes have near-misses, bridges collapse and the world of big data gets a thorough going-over. Maths can be a useful ally in life and we should take the time to better understand it, he argues. Which is both true and, I suspect, for most of us vanishingly unlikely.