Book Review: How Not to Be Wrong

I recently read How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg. My feelings about the book roller-coastered until the last page. Overall, I did enjoy this read.

One afternoon this summer, I was exploring Holland with my sister in town. We walked into multiple shops and boutiques, but of course found ourselves lost in a bookstore on the corner. Here, was my first encounter with Ellenberg’s book. As soon as I walked in, How Not to Be Wrong was featured in the front; the red dart and word “mathematics” on the cover caught my eye. I read the back, flipped through a few pages, and took a picture of the cover so I could read it in the future. Lucky for me, this book was on the recommended book list for my capstone class, so of course I jumped right on it.

Initially, I loved this book. I loved it so much I hardly put it down – I even got splashed in the face by a sprinkler while I was reading and walking to class…not okay! Ellenberg begins the book with a perfect explanation to a high school student about what mathematics is. I quoted a majority of it in my blog post, What is Math?  He states: “Math is woven into the way we reason…it is the study of things that come out a certain way because there is no other way they could possibly be.” And then dives into the story of Abraham Wald, a mathematician asked to analyze bullet-hole data from planes returning from World War II sorties. Wald shocked the military when he suggested putting more armor where you don’t see the bullet holes. The reason: planes hit in such spots did not return to be included in the data. This is the kind of “mathematical thinking” Ellenberg highlights throughout the rest of the book, “the extension of common sense by other means.”

After finishing the first couple chapters, my feelings began to develop. The book is divided into five major mathematical topics, each with one or two chapters on specific events/stories to help better understand that topic in general. Here is where my loss of interest started. I noticed myself going back a line, a paragraph, or sometimes an entire page, just to make sense of what I read. His stories are relevant, but fail to the overall connection: when am I going to use this? Ellenberg points out complex mathematical ideas from our everyday lives, and tries to simplify them for anyone with a high school education to understand. His result: a long, confusing chapter, over-explaining what he is actually trying to get across.

Although Ellenberg takes on a lot to chew here, he does make it a point to keep his voice active throughout the entire book. I caught myself laughing out loud multiple times while reading, something that really helped in finishing the book. Even though I had to go back three times to read the same passage, I didn’t mind if the description of the +/- sign in the quadratic formula “looks like a plus sign and a minus sign that love each other very much”.

In conclusion, I would recommend this book to anyone who truly loves mathematics. The stories are in fact eye-opening, only once you understand the point he is trying to make. I think Ellenberg just needed to connect his final thoughts on each story to his main point of the book: mathematics is everywhere and anyone with some mathematical background can see that.

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