Many a general reader’s mathematical journey ends on encountering the first formula. An Equation for Every Occasion: 52 Formulas and Why They Matter (Johns Hopkins) remedies that through storytelling, placing numerical and scientific concepts into familiar and fathomable context. Take This is the geometric progression at the heart of classical Ponzi schemes. Author John M. Henshaw’s straightforward explanation on why this equation matters is both cogent and, after a sympathetically brief introduction, equation-free: “Each new generation of investors has to be much larger than the one before in order to make the necessary payoffs, and eventually the whole thing collapses under its own weight.” In surveying the Drake equation, Amonton’s friction law, crowd-size estimating, surface tension and other topics as grand as gravity itself, Henshaw prevents math-exploration from collapsing under its own inaccessibility.
21 September 2015
Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century isn’t just a good writing guide. It’s one of the best books published in the past year. Wise, funny, practical and, as of this writing, ranked in the top 20 of three Amazon writing-guide categories, it will find an even wider audience after its Penguin-paperback debut this week. Pinker isn’t a scold who ascribes bad writing to laziness or ill will. He explains why otherwise well-intended writers fail. For example, are scientists and other jargon-drenched writers trying to shut the rest of us out? No, he says. In the subtitle of a chapter called “The Curse of Knowledge,” Pinker nails it: “The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it’s like for someone else not to know something that you know.” He’s also strategic, preparing readers before laying a serious but fascinating grammar lesson on them unlike anything you’ll find in The Elements of Style, in print for 56 years. May Pinker’s words on writing enjoy a similar run.
4 December 2014
Over the years, Princeton University Press has published some of the best natural histories and field guides available. For your consideration this holiday season: Conus of the Southeastern United States and Caribbean by Alan J. Kohn and Trees of Eastern North America and its companion that covers the West, both volumes by Gil Nelson, Christopher J. Earle and Richard Spellenberg, edited by Amy K. Hughes, with illustrations by David More. Listed for $80 (hardback) on Amazon last time we checked, Conus is for the serious naturalist
and a must for the hard-core beachcomber. Kohn, a foremost authority on cone snails, displays his scholarship on every page, with 2,100 mesmerizing color shell photographs of these fascinating gastropods. Conus is likely to remain in the home library or on a (sturdy) coffee table; readers will bring shells to it, not vice versa. The flexible-flapped tree guides sell for less than $30 and are made for the woods. These volumes are masterfully designed, and More’s exquisitely detailed renderings will ensure that weekend botanists never mistake their Hercules’ club for a common hoptree.