jueves, 25 de noviembre de 2010

How Long Is A Piece Of String by Rob Eastaway and Jeremy Wyndham

If you have a couple of hours to spare and are intrigued by apparently simple problems that turn out to be more complex than they seem, then Rob Eastaway and Jeremy Wyndham’s book How Long Is A Piece Of String? would be an engaging way to fill the time. This is a carefully constructed book, with each of its sixteen chapters occupying about ten pages. There is just enough space to introduce an idea, pose a couple of questions and then deliver suitable solutions. The style is a little polemical, since there is not much space for the reader to investigate. But overall the material is well thought out and offers one or two surprising ideas.

Each chapter poses a question. How Long Is a Piece Of String, Am I Being Taken For A Ride, What Makes A Hit Single, Is It A Fake are just a few examples. In Am I Being Taken For A Ride the authors explain the logic of the taxi fare. It’s ironic that as the chapters go by they themselves have something of the air of a driver eyeing the customer in the back with an associated, “And another thing…”

The authors consider chance in game shows alongside how soon a drunk will fall into the ditch. Their analysis of how predictable sporting contests might be might itself also explain why I gave up watching tennis decades ago. They examine fractals and make a tree and then conclude that numbers quite often start with one. You may find this last revelation surprising. I did.

All right, it’s populist stuff, but there is enough mathematics to keep the specialist interested for a couple of hours. The book is strangely but usefully illustrated and some of its explanations are extremely well presented. It’s undoubtedly a worthwhile read. Oh, and How Long Is A Piece OF String? Well, as Richard Feynman famously answered, it depends on the length of your ruler.

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