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Our Days Are Numbered: How Mathematics Orders Our Lives

Jason I. Brown
McClelland and Stewart
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
P. N. Ruane
, on

The style of writing in this book reminds me of Alain de Botton, who has written various books examining aspects of everyday life from a general philosophical standpoint. In The Art of Travel, for example, de Botton poignantly observes the trials and tribulations of modern travel, and he compares our emotional reactions to such experiences with those of philosophers and writers of days gone by.

Jason Brown does a similar job in this book, but from a mathematical standpoint. He’s a great storyteller, whose gentle humour sets the scene for the extrication of mathematics from a multitude of daily situations. Each of the book’s 13 chapters begins with an anecdotal account of some aspect of his personal or professional life, and each one gently reveals the latent mathematics lying below the surface of various commonplace experiences.

The level of mathematical exposition is never very deep, but it does introduce the reader to a wide range of ideas. At the most basic level, the book explores aspects of practical arithmetic. It discusses the role of statistics in everyday life, and it provides commentary on the use and misuse of graphical representation. But there are many references to less familiar ideas, such as dimensional analysis, the harmonic series, fractals and calculus. Also, arising from Jason Brown’s stated passion for music, various ideas are introduced to show the links between the two subjects (Fourier transforms receive brief mention).

However, it is both the literary style of this book and its mathematical accessibility that makes it suited to the general reader. In particular, it takes a fresh look at familiar topics, but it doesn’t overwhelm the beginner with too many technical aspects of its newer and more difficult themes. In the process, mathematics is warmly portrayed as a subject with an interesting past and one that is continually growing.

A final comment pertains to the last chapter of this book, which is the second longest of the thirteen. It introduces the mathematics required for the study of harmonic aspects of various songs, and particularly those by the Beatles. These include ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, ‘Drive My Car’, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ but not, alas, ‘Penny Lane’. And yet, despite this grave omission, I strongly recommend this book as a most enjoyable read — for both experienced and incipient mathematicians.

Peter Ruane was born in 99 Penny Lane, Liverpool L18 1DF, and a picture of him (in his pram) outside that house is available from

The table of contents is not available.