Book Review: Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors by Matt Parker

by @edent | #

Book cover with an aeroplane with backwards wings mistakenly fixed to it.

What makes a bridge wobble when it’s not meant to? Billions of dollars mysteriously vanish into thin air? A building rock when its resonant frequency matches a gym class leaping to Snap’s 1990 hit I’ve Got The Power? The answer is maths. Or, to be precise, what happens when maths goes wrong in the real world.

A lightweight and charming book looking at the mathematical mistakes which have impacted the world. If you’ve hung around programming and maths circles for a while, you’ll have heard of most of these famous errors. But what Matt does is delve into the mathematics behind the error. Most people in computing learn about Therac-25 but this is the first time I’ve seen a simple to read description of the maths which caused death.

There is, perhaps surprisingly, little mathematics in the book. Stephen Hawking was famously told that every equation included in “A Brief History of Time” would halve its sales and this book follows a similar pattern. It uses lots of graphs, photos, and analogies to get the point across.

And I think that is the book’s greatest strength. Programming is almost never about typing symbols into computers. It’s about understanding the world, and communicating that to other humans. The computer is, perhaps, the least interesting part of the equation.

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