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Why Do Buses Come in Threes: The Hidden Mathematics of Everyday Life

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  • Posted July 23, 2009

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    An entertaining discussion of mathematical curiosities.

    Rob Eastaway and Jeremy Wyndham's Why do buses come in threes?: The Hidden Mathematics of Everyday Life describes how mathematics can be used to analyze situations in everyday life in a manner that is accessible to a high school student who has completed courses in algebra and geometry. Readers of popularizations of mathematics will find much that is familiar here. However, there are some notable exceptions, notably negative feedback mechanisms, queueing theory, and the use of critical paths in scheduling. Other topics include Fibonacci numbers, graph theory, statistics and polling, probability (as it relates to gambling, coincidences, and bad luck), cryptography, game theory, the use of geometry and trigonometry in everyday life, sports rankings, the use of logic in everyday life, and the role of mathematics in magic. The authors mean to entertain rather than explain the underlying mathematics. Formulas are presented rather than derived. Consequently, those readers with a deep knowledge of mathematics may find the book frustrating at times. However, the authors provide a list of references so that interested readers can explore the topics further. Laypeople will find the book accessible and entertaining. This is evident from the start as the authors demonstrate why it is difficult to find a four-leaf clover using Fibonacci numbers. Other mathematical topics are also introduced through examples. For instance, game theory is introduced via a discussion of two teenagers who want to date the same girl and negative feedback mechanisms are introduced through a discussion of why it is difficult to properly adjust the temperature of your shower. The examples upon which the authors draw are often visual, making them easy for readers to understand. The authors' exposition, which is supplemented by humorous illustrations by Barbara Shore, is clear. One exception is their discussion of the 1948 presidential election results in the United States. Polls preceding the election predicted that Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican governor of New York, was likely to win the election. On election day, as the authors state, Truman won by a margin of more than two million votes. However, the percentages they give for the election are incorrect, so it looks like Truman actually did worse in the election than in the polls. In reality, Truman won 49.55% of the vote while Dewey won 45.07% of the vote. State's Rights Party (Dixiecrat) candidate Strom Thurmond (2.41%) and Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace (2.37%) accounted for most of the other votes. The authors give a percentage for independent, but it is not clear whether they are referring to Strom Thurmond (who won four southern states) or all the candidates other than Truman and Dewey. The only other error I found was a typo that proved inconsequential. Reading this book will give you a sense of why it is helpful to understand mathematics in your everyday life, particularly when dealing with people who may be unscrupulous such as marketers or politicians. Moreover, the authors will keep you entertained while you learn.

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