Friday, July 10, 2020

Review: Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe

You wouldn't think that an audio book on calculus would be a page turner, or whatever the audio equivallent of a page turner is. And yet, I found Steven Strogatz's Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe to precisely this. Stogatz's text is blend of history, math concepts, and novel case studies.

On the history side, Stogatz adds real dimension to characters like Galileo, Newton and other classic names. He manages to both humanize these individuals as well as show them as the mathematic uber geniuses they were. I also learned about new folks like Sofia Kovalevsky, who holds a number of firsts for women in mathmatics.

And then there are the interesting case studies. Strogatz shows how calculus was deployed in topics ranging from GPS development to facial reconstruction surgery. With Covid-19 pandemic as context, I found the case study relating to AIDS drug therapies to be especially fascinating. But <insert name of teacher>, am I ever going to need to use <insert advanced math concept> in the real world? Strogatz makes the case, yes, yes you will.

The part of the text that I truly relished was when Strogatz switched into math-teacher mode. From his demonstration of using infinity as a problem solving tool, to his explanation of euler's number and countless topics in between, I loved how clearly he could break down complex material. I was blown away when he effortlessly explained why we can't divide by 0, something I'd taken as gospel but never considered the underlying reason. Being an audio book, however, some topics went beyond my ability to mentally visualize them.

Consider integration. Prior to listening to Infinite Powers I could have told you that one used integration to find the area under a curve. What I couldn't tell was: (a) how to perform an integration and (b) why finding the area under a curve is so useful. I still can't do (a) but thanks to Strogatz, I can explain (b). And in some respects the why is even more imporant than the how.

If you're still on the fence about Infinite Powers, here's another factor to consider: it makes a powerful sleep aid. Our 5 month old and I listened to this book, and on many occasions, it helped deliver him to dream land. And if the kid grows up to be a mathmetical genius, we'll be able to trace his first exposure to advanced mathematical topics to this book.

I'm telling you, stepping a back into 'math class' with Strogatz is a worthwhile endevor. You'll walk away fresh ideas percolating in your head and no pesky tests or homework to stress you out.

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