Group Theory in the Bedroom

By BRIAN HAYES

Brian Hayes — who, as a young science writer, had the unenviable task of penning a column to be titled “Computer Recreations” despite having, by his own admission, “never laid hands” on a computer — is now nobody’s idea of a novice. Among other achievements, he has garnered a National Magazine Award for his 1999 essay “Clock of Ages.” That meditation on long-term engineering leads off the diverting and mind-expanding pieces collected in Group Theory in the Bedroom. The subjects range from the statistical distribution of money in the economy to the methodology for identifying the Continental Divide to the best algorithm for rotating your mattress to avoid wear and tear (the mock-salacious title thus explained). While he sometimes ventures into the stratosphere of number theory, Hayes is never remiss about the real-world implications of his forays, and in fact a piece such as “Statistics of Deadly Quarrels” tackles the nature of war and peace more boldly than any political commentary. Hayes’s prose is admirably transparent and inveigling. His description of one early attempt to decipher the mechanics of genetic transcription as “the prettiest wrong idea in all of twentieth-century science” is unforgettable. In “On the Teeth of Wheels,” he comes very close to crafting a quintessential steampunk narrative, cousin to Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine. In this essay, Hayes “cannot help wondering which of my own labors will appear equally quaint and pathetic to some future reader.” Be that as it may, he provides very stimulating and valuable thought games today. -

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