Group Theory in the Bedroom, and Other Mathematical Diversions

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An Award-Winning Essayist Plies His Craft

Brian Hayes is one of the most accomplished essayists active today—a claim supported not only by his prolific and continuing high-quality output but also by such honors as the National Magazine Award for his commemorative Y2K essay titled "Clock of Ages," published in the November/December 1999 issue of The Sciences magazine. (The also-rans that year included Tom Wolfe, Verlyn Klinkenborg, and Oliver Sacks.) Hayes's work in this genre ...

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An Award-Winning Essayist Plies His Craft

Brian Hayes is one of the most accomplished essayists active today—a claim supported not only by his prolific and continuing high-quality output but also by such honors as the National Magazine Award for his commemorative Y2K essay titled "Clock of Ages," published in the November/December 1999 issue of The Sciences magazine. (The also-rans that year included Tom Wolfe, Verlyn Klinkenborg, and Oliver Sacks.) Hayes's work in this genre has also appeared in such anthologies as The Best American Magazine Writing, The Best American Science and Nature Writing, and The Norton Reader. Here he offers us a selection of his most memorable and accessible pieces—including "Clock of Ages"—embellishing them with an overall, scene-setting preface, reconfigured illustrations, and a refreshingly self-critical "Afterthoughts" section appended to each essay.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In charming prose that more or less makes up for the relative lack of rigor in many of his explorations, about which Hayes is refreshingly honest ("I see no reason to doubt this assumption, at least as an approximation, but I also have no evidence to support it"), science and technology journalist Hayes (Infrastructure) explains the engineering and arithmetic of clocks and gears, wracks his brain over questions of how best to flip a mattress and visits "the prettiest wrong idea in all of twentieth-century science... the vision of piglets suckling on messenger RNA." As he examines huge calculating tables rendered obsolete by computers, Hayes "cannot help wondering which of my labors will appear equally quaint and pathetic to some future reader." This observation is echoed by the afterwords where Hayes addresses pointed questions and observations from readers, displaying a brave willingness to admit error and acknowledge advances made since these pieces were first published in the Sciencesand American Scientist. Present-day readers would do best to approach this collection more for its literary merits than its revelation of obscure history or cutting-edge mathematical theory. 41 b&w illus. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
School Library Journal

If your idea of fun includes puzzling over the creation of an algorithm for the Continental Divide, then this essay collection by the former editor in chief of American Scientist(AS) will tickle your imagination. Hayes, now an award-winning columnist for AS, has put together some of his best pieces and has included with each a section called "Afterthoughts," in which he enthusiastically adds new information and humbly corrects old mistakes. Hayes explores topics as diverse as the centuries-old Strasbourg clock, economic theory, randomness, DNA, gear ratios, weather forecasting, and war and international relations. And with tongue firmly in cheek, he even writes about the ways that one can flip a mattress. Although one need not be a rocket scientist-or even an undergraduate math major-to understand Hayes's work, the wit and elegance of the essays are best appreciated by those with a solid math background and an interest in math play. Recommended for large public libraries and academic libraries supporting programs in mathematics and computer science.
—Denise Dayton

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Reviews
A selection of "Computing Science" columns by American Scientist magazine's former editor-in-chief aimed at the numerate-or at least mathematically curious-reader. While you don't have to be a geek to appreciate Hayes's lively, self-effacing style (complete with afterthoughts), it helps to understand that computer science relies on a field of math called numerical analysis and uses algorithms-rules for generating solutions to problems through an iterative process (the way you learned to do square roots in high school). The first essay explains how clockmakers developed the gears and linkages that enabled fabled medieval clocks to reach remarkable accuracy, as well as predict the day Easter would fall on. Other essays celebrate the notion of random numbers and why they are so hard to achieve. Numerical analysis also plays a role in economic models based on the kinetic theory of gases or simplified markets involving iterations of buying and selling. Hayes goes on to explain how statistics have been applied to compute which quarrels-from interpersonal to world wars-are the deadliest (surprising results here). Also, he looks at how algorithms have been developed to determine ways to divide a random series of numbers into two parts with equal sums, or nearly equal sums if the series total is odd. Gears appear again in the form of algorithms, which yield practical tables of numbers to enable engineers to make gear trains to approximate complex ratios. A couple of essays probe areas only professionals might ponder, such as computing the location of the Continental Divide or why base 3 arithmetic is better than base 10 or binary systems. But the piece de resistance is the title essay, whichexplains why there is no algorithm whose repetitions would cycle through all four possible mattress positions that would assure equal wear and tear over time. Challenging but rewarding for anyone intrigued by numbers.
From the Publisher
“As much as any book I can name, Group Theory in the Bedroom conveys to a general audience the playfulness involved in doing mathematics: how questions arise as a form of play, how our first attempts at answering questions usually seem naive in hindsight but are crucial for finding eventual solutions, and how a good solution just feels right.” —David Austin, Notices of the AMS

Group Theory in the Bedroom and Other Mathematical Diversions is a marvelous collection of thought-provoking essays that both inform and entertain. You’ll be amazed by the things you’ll discover in these stories.” —Ron Graham, professor of mathematics, computer science and engineering, University of California, San Diego, former chief scientist of AT&T, and past president of the American Mathematical Society, the Mathematical Association of America and the International Jugglers Association

“Brian Hayes’s book is a refreshing collection of superb mathematical essays. Ranging from choosing up sides to choosing names, the topics are intriguingly nonstandard. Moreover, the writing is clean, the explanations are pellucid, and the effect on the reader is exhilarating. First-rate all the way through.” —John Allen Paulos, author of Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences and the forthcoming Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up

"Every essay in this book is a gem of science writing on its highest level—accurate, up to date, brimming with surprising information, deep insights, and a profound love of mathematics. Its scope is awesome. Topics include a fantastic clock in Strasbourg, randomness, poverty, war, geology, genetics, gear ratios, partitions, nomenclature, group theory, and the ambiguity of the equals sign. There isn't a dull page in the book." —Martin Gardner, author of The Colossal Book of Short Puzzles and Problems and more than 60 other titles

The Barnes & Noble Review
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. --Paul DiFilippo
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809052172
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/14/2009
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,355,358
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Brian Hayes writes the "Computing Science" column for American Scientist magazine, where he is a former editor in chief. His previous book, Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape, was published in 2005.

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Table of Contents

Preface     ix
Clock of Ages     3
Random Resources     23
Follow the Money     41
Inventing the Genetic Code     65
Statistics of Deadly Quarrels     89
Dividing the Continent     107
On the Teeth of Wheels     125
The Easiest Hard Problem     143
Naming Names     161
Third Base     179
Identity Crisis     201
Group Theory in the Bedroom     219
Further Reading     239
Index     255

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 2 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 13, 2010

    A Fine Popularization of Applied Mathematics

    A nice little book that makes the results of a handful of topics from applied mathematics and statistics accessible to the general public. The more advanced student of science or mathematics will find the text pretty much devoid of mathematical rigor, but that is what makes the book accessible to the generalist. You might not be able to apply the results of any of the items discussed in this book to your everyday life, but it will at least get you think.

    I can pretty much guarantee that you will learn something interesting from this book. And heaven forbid, you might even do a few hand calculations (no!) or a create a simple computer model (gasp!). I did all of the above, and that is more than most books ever do.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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