Humble Pi – Matt Parker

Subtitled ‘A comedy of Maths Errors’ this book looks at mistakes not only with mathematics but also some dodgy computer programming and some problems that fall in between like the fact that an employee kept disappearing from the company database and it turns out that his name was Steve Null. I used to be a programmer and more importantly for this example a Database Analyst so immediately saw the problem here, empty fields which should be populated are counted as Null in a database so you would search for Null entries and delete the records as they are clearly not filled in correctly and could cause processing errors later down the line, this person was actually called Null so kept being deleted.

Matt Parker is the Public Engagement Mathematics Fellow at Queen Mary University of London, amongst many other things, and has made a career out of explaining mathematics to the general public both on youtube and in highly successful theatre based tours. He started out as a maths teacher in his native Australia but has lived in England for many years and built his online presence here. The book is not only informative regarding maths errors and possible pitfalls but includes several mathematical jokes in its layout such as starting at page 314 and counting down which is clearly not normal behaviour for a book. The choice of 314 is deliberate as Matt is well known for his annual calculations of pi in different ways on pi day (American format dates for the 14th of March gives 3.14) including one ideal for this which uses the actual book I’m reviewing to calculate pi.

Other ways he plays with the normal structure of a book include having a chapter 9.49 between chapters 9 and 10, which appropriately covers problems with rounding errors, and the index which is surprisingly accurate as not only do you get the page with the entry on but as it is to five decimal places you get the location of the word you searched for.

Some of the errors I had come across before but surprisingly not many, this is a really well researched piece of work. One I hadn’t heard of in the past is now rapidly becoming my favourite mistake because it was so close to being right and then fell over at the final hurdle. There was a bridge being built between Switzerland and Germany and to save time it was decided to start from both sides and meet in the middle. Clearly this is a good idea but you do need to actually line up perfectly so the maths is even more vital than normal for an engineering project. There is a problem with matching heights and that is that they are calculated ‘above sea level’ now that wouldn’t be an issue if sea level was constant (it isn’t, the curvature of the Earth amongst other factors sees to that) bit also Switzerland does not have a coast but via a fairly convoluted route uses the Mediterranean Sea as its base point. Germany does have a coast but a long way from Switzerland on the North Sea. The engineers thought of this however and correctly calculated the difference as 27cm, which is pretty impressive (a) to think of it and (b) to get it right but then added the 27cm to the wrong side so the bridge missed its joint by 54cm.

If this post intrigues you Matt has done a couple of lectures based around the book and this is the link to the one he gave at The Royal Institution in London last year. In it he goes through several examples in the book including a section near the end where his wife, space scientist Lucy Green, brings into the lecture hall what remains of a satellite blown to pieces and dumped in a swamp after a simple maths error. You can’t easily get a more dramatic, or indeed more expensive example of maths gone wrong than that. I bought the book from Matt on his website so it is signed by him and yes I have posted this a day late from my usual Tuesday and between 7pm and 8pm rather than 7am and 8am to show that getting a number wrong is all too common and Matt also left in three errors for exactly that reason.

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