Review of Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors – Matt Parker

Posted: September 19, 2019 in nonfiction, Review

We would all be better off if everyone saw mathematics as a practical ally. Sadly, most of us fear maths and seek to avoid it. This is because mathematics doesn’t have good ‘people skills’ – it never hesitates to bluntly point out when we are wrong. But it is only trying to help! Mathematics is a friend which can fill the gaps in what our brains can do naturally.

Luckily, even though we don’t like sharing our own mistakes, we love to read about what happens when maths errors make the everyday go horribly wrong. Matt Parker explores and explains near misses and mishaps with planes, bridges, the internet and big data as a way of showing us not only how important maths is, but how we can use it to our advantage. This comedy of errors is a brilliantly told series of disaster stories with a happy ending.

Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors

Matt Parker

Allen Lane

Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Stephen Litten

Mathematics underpins many disciplines, but one that affects us most is engineering. Matt Parker investigates the mathematical failures of engineering in Humble Pi. There are a surprisingly large number of ways mistakes can be made, and Parker throws light and elucidation on these.

Humble Pi is arranged in the normal manner, excepting the reverse page numbering and an inserted chapter 9.49 between chapters 9 and 10. The failures generally fall into four categories: unexpected consequences, more precision needed, poor planning, and the limitations of computer systems. And in writing that sentence I made a mistake by assuming only three and remembering a fourth. Parker tends to avoid fatal disasters: there’s no comedy in death (unless it’s the Darwin Awards).

Computers do get special mention, as there are numerous ways computers are not the best tool for what they are doing.: random number generation, timing, data storage using the wrong programme. The misuse of computers is impressive. Bridges seemed to feature highly, with harmonic vibrations featuring with two of my favourites; the Millennium Footbridge and “Galloping Gertie” aka the Tacoma Narrows bridge.

I enjoyed this book; Parker writes with humour and style while dissecting the nature of the mathematical failures. I recommend this to anyone with an interest in mathematics, or engineering, or failures. I thank Penguin Random House for the review copy.

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