4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

For most people, the thought of reading a maths book is not even something that they would ever consider. They had been put off maths at school and almost certainly have never done anything other than added a few numbers up or split a bill in a restaurant (when we could go to them). But in this modern world maths is the foundation of our modern society.

Every time you are online, you are using prime numbers to make secure transactions, we use AI in our phones and home to find and recommend music and lots of other things and we mustn’t forget the power that algorithms have over our lives that never seems to diminish. Over the past year, numbers have been a feature of our life as the pandemic has spread like wildfire across the world. We see the charts and graphs rising with the horrific death toll.

How this figure rises is covered in the first of the seven chapters of this book, exponential numbers. In here he looks at real-life examples of numbers that grow in the way from nuclear explosions to bank interest. The second chapter is all about risk as he begins with an email about his DNA after a genetic test with a particular emphasis on calculating medical odds and a lot on false positives and how to understand results.

The phrase, there are lies, damned lies and statistics is so very true. They are banded about a lot on the news by people who frankly have no place in repeating them nor have the first clue as to the statistic being quoted in a lot of instances. Thankfully Yates is her to clear the muddied waters in his Chapter, Don’t Believe The Truth. He starts with the birthday problem, which is how few people do you need in a room before you will find two people with matching birthdays. Discounting twins, the real answer is much less than people expect. He debunks statistics that papers use but explaining that you need context to understand increases in numbers, not just a percentage.

The next chapter talks about errors and how people can make simple errors when converting from one number system to another, i.e. imperial to metric, as well as making mistakes when miscalculating dosages and increasing them by tenfold. Maths ignorance is ripe for errors to be made and they can be life-threatening too. The penultimate chapter is on that modern joy, the algorithm. In here, Yates, explains how they do have their uses, i.e. by working out the best delivery routes and how some books on Amazon are priced in the millions of dollars because of an over-enthusiastic algorithm. The final chapter is all about disease. Cheerful stuff, I know, but maths can be used to model outbreaks and there is the clearest explanation of the R number I have read.

Bearing in mind this was written in 2019 before the coronavirus outbreak this is still quite a prescient book. For those that get break out in a sweat when they read x = 2y, they will be pleased to hear that there are no equations in the book. There is the occasional graph and all the way through there are clear diagrams and explanations as to what is going on and why it is happening in a particular way. It can sometimes be grim, but it is an endlessly fascinating book.

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