[Review] Humble Pi

Dear Reader,

Are phone numbers numbers? This question and many more are answered in the book Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors by Matt Parker.

Can a book all about numbers really be a comedy? I too was skeptical, but I assure you that the answer is a big, fat YES!

Australian Matt Parker is one of the few people in the world who can claim the job title of a “stand-up mathematician.”  

In Humble Pi, Parker explores the world through numbers and exposes funny (and sometimes tragic) math errors throughout history. For example, consider motivational posters that convey the sentiment that “good teams function like a well-oiled machine,” by illustrating the text with a picture of three cogs (see below). While this seems fine (also kind of cheesy), this machine with three cogs would not actually be the best representation for a motivational poster.

©RavenSunset 2020

Parker explains that any odd number of cogs simply won’t go. If cog 1 turns clockwise and cog 2 turns counter-clockwise, then cog three must go both clockwise and counter-clockwise; so, in short, cog 3 is jammed!

The comedy of math errors spans a range of examples, including the historical struggle to create an accurate calendar, unit conversion mistakes, as well as common (but also disastrous) coding errors.

Along the way, Parker shares fun bits of information that, frankly, will blow your mind! One example is how we as people think about large numbers. One million, one billion, and one trillion are all ginormous, but, when we count in this way, the numbers are seemingly in the “same league,” so to speak. To show the vast chasm separating million, billion, and trillion, Parker illustrates the gap by looking at these quantities in seconds.

  • 1 million seconds = 11.5 days.
  • 1 billion seconds = 31.75 years.
  • 1 trillion seconds = 31,710 years!!!!!!!!!

Consider that when someone tries to lump millionaires and billionaires into one group!

This book is both funny and dense. I learned a loooot of random facts from this book, but there were so many that the book was more entertaining than informational (and I will probably forget 90% of everything in less than 90 days…).

Circling back to the question at the top of this post “are phone numbers numbers?”; the most accurate answer is that phone numbers are digits. Numbers can be added, subtracted, etc., while a “digit” is a numeral from 0 to 9. In this way, digits function like symbols. No one will ask you for the square root of your phone “number,” so, phone “digits” is more appropriate.

If you appreciate random knowledge, clever arguments, and a diversity of stories, do consider checking out Humble Pi by Matt Parker.



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