Book Review: Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction by Timothy Gowers

Carrying on a look at some of the books in the Very Short Introduction (VSI) series, I wanted to revisit some of the joy of university life by returning to mathematics, the subject in which I obtained a first class Masters degree. With the title as it is, one might wonder what sort of level as it’s pitched at. Here, one could be lulled into a false sense of security by mistaking it for “Arithmetic: A Very Short Introduction”. Do not expect this to be “a very simple introduction”. To anyone who has studied maths at university, this will be a very simple book. To anyone studying maths at A-level, they should find it a little challenging in places, but it should provide good food for thought, building on some familiar principles. The author says that it should be OK for anyone with a good GCSE grade, though I would express a little scepticism at that sentiment.

That said, I do think it’s a marvellous little book. One of the first things that Gowers discusses is the cumulative nature of maths. i.e. some things can be very simply stated, but only in terms of other things which need to be well-defined and understood. The danger then is how far back do you regress to be able to find ground which is widely understood?

Gowers deals with this brilliantly by having his opening chapter on mathematical modelling. In so doing, he grounds mathematics in the real, the physical, the tangible, instead of diving off into the realms of pure mathematics straight away. Though I must admit, the appeal to me comes about primarily because he enunciates the way I have thought of maths for most of the last 3 decades.

From here, he starts to ask some more fundamental questions about the nature of numbers, including complex numbers (but not quaternions) and some “proper” algebra though he cunningly avoids the use of terms such group, ring or field whilst ensuring the reader is familiar with their rules by means of definitions followed-up with examples. He also touches on some rules regarding logarithms which perplex some people, but are dealt with very well.

He then goes on to probably the most important idea in maths: proof. Though touching on a little philosophy, he tries to skirt around it and give a robust exposition of what a mathematician means when (s)he talks about proof and how it differs from the more lackadaisical use of the word in everyday (and even some other areas of scientific) usage.

Though any book on serious mathematics probably ought to contain a good amount on calculus, Gowers avoids this quite ostentatiously. Rather, he lays the groundwork for an understanding of it with a chapter on limits and infinity. In so doing, one might think he’s dodged a potential bullet of losing the interest of readers, though I think that anyone who hasn’t done calculus but who has understood this chapter will be well-placed to start studying calculus.

Moving on, we start to get a bit more geometrical. The first of these two chapters looks solely at the idea of dimensionality. One might instinctively have an idea of what a dimension is or how to count them. However, maths is rather more refined than such instinctive generalities and Gowers gives us some examples that any student would find in a 1st year linear algebra course. If anything, this is the acid test for those considering doing maths at university; if this is incomprehensible to you, then it’s best to turn away. But if, on the other hand, you can see there’s something there that can be grasped, if you don’t quite get it exactly at this stage, then you’re standing in good stead. The second of the geometrical chapters looks at much more fundamental geometry, looking at the classic issue of Euclid’s 5th postulate and the consequences of abandoning it.

The last main chapter is on one of my least favourite topics: estimates and approximations. This was a topic I did to death in my 2nd year at uni, not getting on with the lecturer (an angry Scot called Alan) and having a nightmare on the exam, barely scraping a 2:1 in it. Gowers doesn’t hide from the fact that this is not neat maths, as most of the rest of the book is, though he spares the reader from an insight into the gory detail of numerical analysis (or num anal, as we disparagingly called it). If there’s any downside to this wonderful introduction, it is this chapter. Not because it is badly written or poorly explained, it isn’t. But merely because it lacks the sexy panache that the rest of the topics have.

This is redeemed somewhat at the very end when he puts in some frequently asked questions, along with his answers. If anything, these give a far better insight into the working life of the mathematician than anything found in the rest of the book. He addresses some myths and common (mis)conceptions, giving an honest assessment on some issues where he needn’t have done so.

Overall, it’s a great book. If you hated maths at school, then this isn’t the book to get you back into it and loving it. But for anyone with a keen interest in science and how it’s done, then this is a gem. If you know any A-level students considering doing maths at uni, give them this book. Hey, they are students, so £8 for a little book is a lot of money. Go on!

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One response to “Book Review: Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction by Timothy Gowers

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Robotics: A Very Short Introduction by Alan Winfield | The Alethiophile