The strange thing about Sherman Stein's book Strength in Numbers is that he ever managed to get it past the editor at John Wiley. Not, I hasten to add, because it is not well written. Nor because it is not interesting. Nor because Stein does not know whereof he speaks. The book is well written, makes fascinating reading, and it is clear that Stein is an expert on his subject.
Rather, the odd thing is that Strength in Numbers is not one medium sized book but three short ones. Moreover, three short books with almost nothing to connect them, other than that they all deal with mathematics. In particular, each part seems to be aimed at a very different audience from the other two.
Every single book editor I have worked with — and I have worked with a fair number over the years — would have insisted that Stein take back his manuscript and turn it into three separate books, which could then be marketed in the appropriate quarters. That did not seem to have happened with Stein. Which is, I think, a pity.
Stein's writing is so good — and his ideas so well expressed — that I wish he had produced not the present collection of three mini-books, but three separate books, giving us more of each category, with a unifying theme to each.
The first mini-book is about mathematics in general, with a particular emphasis on numeracy. This is the standard fayre of trade book mathematics, served up well by an obvious master. I particularly liked the chapter devoted to debunking a number of mathematical myths. Among them is the well known story that there is no Nobel Prize in mathematics because the mathematician Mittag-Leffler had an affair with Nobel's wife, and Nobel feared that Mittag-Leffler might have won such a prize. Nobel made sure it could not happen, so the story goes, by excluding mathematics from the list of subjects for which a prize could be awarded. As Stein points out, there is a problem with this story. Nobel never married.
Part two of the book focuses on the pedagogy of elementary and high school mathematics. The target audience must surely be the teacher in the elementary and high school mathematics classroom. (I certainly hope Stein manages to reach that audience!)
Finally, in the last third of the book, Stein takes a look at calculus. This is presumably aimed at senior high school students and their teachers, and perhaps first-year college students as well. It's a refreshing change to see a lively discussion of the conceptual heart of calculus, rather that the pages of applications that fill so many calculus texts.
Given the lack of a single theme, it is hard to imagine this book finding as many readers as the writing deserves. But I have no hesitation recommending it to members of MAA. You are bound to find something you like.
Keith Devlin is frequently heard speaking about mathematics on National Public Radio.