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What's the Use? How Mathematics Shapes Everyday Life

Ian Stewart
Basic Books
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Tom French
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Professor Stewart’s latest book provides us a study on how mathematics is used to drive the technologies and science which affect our everyday lives. His book covers a wide range of mathematical topics and their applications, oftentimes from an insider's point of view.  We live in a mathematically driven world in this 21st Century world that we have created, but oftentimes the mathematics is completely hidden from the end-user.  Professor Stewart brings the mathematics out into the open.
This book could serve as a supplementary text for “History and Philosophy of Mathematics” or “Liberal Arts Mathematics” courses.  The text would be a strong addition to the library of the high school teacher who leads a Math Club or wants to cover a wide variety of mathematical topics with their students.  And, any professor or teacher who has had to answer the question: “What is this math used for?” will find a vast and surprising array of answers in this book.
Each chapter describes a technology that we all use today.  We are led into our study of the technology with a familiar story or amusing anecdote.  The chapter then enumerates the mathematics embedded in the technology and presents a historical tour of both the mathematics and science that leads to technological advancement. This book serves not only as a study of the applications of mathematics, but as a study of the history of mathematics as well.          
Some of the topics covered by Professor Stewart include Gerrymandering and how politicians pick their voters rather than the voters picking their politicians; the famous Konigsberg Bridge Problem solved by Euler and its application for organizing kidney transplants donors and kidney transplant recipients; Einstein’s equations for general and special relativity and how it is used to coordinate GPS signals so that we know where we are on earth. These are but a small sample of the topics and numerous applications covered in this text.
Professor Stewart’s research has found some profound and surprising applications that would simply not occur to the casual observer.  Many times, I found myself fascinated as I read through the applications and how they are used over time to develop both science and technology. One example that struck me was how the study of magnets in the 1820’s led to the finding of the Curie Temperature in 1895 (where ferrous materials lose their magnetism when heated) which, in 2005, was used to determine how the polar ice caps are melting, resulting in a more accurate understanding of climate change and weather patterns.  Professor Stewart makes these connections smoothly and logically. 


Tom French ([email protected]) has a B.S. and M.S. degree in Mathematics from Minnesota State University, Mankato.  He has 35 years of engineering and business experience with UNIVAC and its successor companies.  He has lectured on mathematics and computer systems throughout the world and has taught mathematics at a number of US colleges and universities. 
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