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The Mathematics of Life

Basic Books
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When confronted by a book of popular mathematics, many mathematicians, by which I mean me and any others like me, think (a) that they don’t have to read it because they know all the stuff in it already and, if they look at it, (b) that they could have done just as well, or better, if they only had felt like writing it.

For this book, neither (a) nor (b) applies because first, it is a book of popular biology, not mathematics, and second, neither you nor I could have done as well.

Ian Stewart, emeritus professor of mathematics at Warwick University in England, has written some thirty books with titles like Nature’s Numbers, What Shape is a Snowflake?, and How to Cut a Cake: mathematics for the masses. Here we have something completely different, a history of biology and an account of its present state, concentrating on those parts that come into contact with mathematics in one way or another. But the mathematics is not the thing. Stewart has taken to heart the principle that the sales of a book decrease in proportion to the number of equations in it, and you will be hard put to find an equals sign anywhere aside from occurrences like “17 + 36 = 36 + 17” (p. 205) and others of similar depth. Euler’s polyhedron formula makes an appearance but that’s about it, except for a few differential equations and such in the Notes, which no one is expected to read.

Instead of mathematics, you will find accounts of all sorts of biological phenomena: DNA and evolution, of course, but much else besides. There are the blue, yellow, and orange lizards, all of the same species, who exist in equilibrium, there is an explanation for why the spirals in pineapples and sunflowers come with Fibonacci numbers, there is an exposition of cladistics (admit it, you don’t know what that is, do you?), there is mention of how Alan Turing showed how tigers got their stripes, and so on and on: fascinating material, well worth reading. Parts of the book brought to my mind Martin Gardner’s Scientific American columns, which is no small praise.

The reason that neither you nor I are going to do any better is that Stewart writes so well. Quality of writing is not often mentioned in reviews of mathematics books, but it is important. Why were the mystery novels of Raymond Chandler chosen for inclusion in the Library of America while those of other toilers in the genre were not? Because Chandler wrote so well, that’s why. Popular science is a genre as yet unrepresented in the Library of America, but I would not complain if Ian Stewart were included. (Being English, he never will be, but in any event I wouldn't complain.) It is hard to define precisely what good writing is. It is not just avoiding obvious infelicities, which Stewart does, never putting a foot wrong, but something undefinable though recognizable when you see it.

Stewart has got it, whatever it is. It may be the result of hard labor or (lucky man) it may flow naturally, but it is there. The Mathematics of Life provides information and gives the reader the pleasure of immersion in limpid, lucid, and lively prose. It deserves many readers.

For some reason Basic Books decided not to right-justify the text. Because Stewart now and then uses long words, which the laws of probability dictate will sometimes occur at the end of lines, the text is unpleasantly jagged. On the other hand, the publisher did not skimp on copy editing because there are no errors or misprints that I noticed. (It is possible that Stewart’s prose did not need any. Credit is deserved by one party, the other, or both.) The index is good, as are the Notes. There are seventy-five illustrations. I wish I would have written this book, but reading it is the next best thing.

Woody Dudley, also emeritus, has eight books on but, alas, they are not popular.

Date Received: 
Thursday, June 2, 2011
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Ian Stewart
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Underwood Dudley
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Friday, July 1, 2011