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The Beauty of Numbers in Nature

Ian Stewart
MIT Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Jack Chen
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Nature is truly an enigma. It ebbs and flows with patterns and symmetries, yet even the simplest observations may have complex explanations. In The Beauty of Numbers in Nature, Ian Stewart starts with an innocent question on the shape of snowflakes. This begins a three-part exploration and cataloguing of various aspects of the world, from the simple honeybee to the whole cosmos. Stewart’s book successfully presents the beauty of nature and the hidden and governing mathematics. For all of its strengths, the book is at points hasty and has slight lapses in focus. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable read for the casual mathematician and presents a new perspective on the world around us.

The book is best described as a combination of questions, stories, and answers. Sometimes its descriptions are brief, while other times the whole history and progression of a mathematical concept is detailed. After initial discussions on patterns, Stewart methodically catalogues the mathematics hidden beneath various aspects of nature. Always there is a focus on beauty, and often there is a focus on mathematical play and exploration. Some of the insights are quite surprising, with Stewart often revealing beauty in unexpected fashions. A particular strength of the book is the breadth of what is explored. It encapsulates the world at every scale, from worms to wormholes. The mathematics behind the book’s concepts is mostly conceptual, but does not lack rigor. The result very accessible to the casual reader and extremely thought-provoking. The author leaves avenues of thought open, and the structure of the book itself encourages readers to make their own observations and conclusions.

The book, however, does have some problems. It feels somewhat hasty at times, both because it leaves some questions unanswered and because it contains minor editorial mistakes that can create confusion in meaning. Some discussions feel more like tangents than explorations, resulting in a loss of focus on what was already a broad and ambitious topic. Since the book is presented as a mathematical journey through nature, these concerns may be excused, as they do contribute to the overall feel of a “journey”. In a few instances, the author presents his personal thoughts, stating that he “believe[s]” or is “guessing here”; the presentation of the unverified thoughts seems misplaced in a book that is so focused on explanations of observations and facts. Stewart’s guesses, however, do have grounds and are plausible; perhaps he is simply encouraging readers to form their own theories and to grow their own understanding.

The Beauty of Numbers in Nature is a book with a grand task: explain the mathematics that operates in nature. Stewart achieves it successfully, revealing the beauty and the mathematics in various aspects of our world. The topics are examined and explained with great clarity, and its conclusions and discussions are incredibly intriguing. I strongly recommend this book for the casual reader who wants an enjoyable and digestible mathematical experience. 

Jack Chen is an engineering science student at the University of Toronto planning to major in Electrical and Computer Engineering. His current mathematical interests are in algebraic combinatorics. 

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