The Mathematics of Life

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Overview

Biologists have long dismissed mathematics as being unable to meaningfully contribute to our understanding of living beings. Within the past ten years, however, mathematicians have proven that they hold the key to unlocking the mysteries of our world—and ourselves.

In The Mathematics of Life, Ian Stewart provides a fascinating overview of the vital but little-recognized role mathematics has played in pulling back the curtain on the hidden complexities of the natural world—and how its contribution will be even more vital in the years ahead. In his characteristically clear and entertaining fashion, Stewart explains how mathematicians and biologists have come to work together on some of the most difficult scientific problems that the human race has ever tackled, including the nature and origin of life itself.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews

In the past, students who loved science but hated math studied biology. That won't work today, writes the prolific emeritus professor of Mathematics at Britain's Warwick University, who explains why in his usual enthusiastic but definitely not dumbed-down style.

Physical scientists joked about biologists as "stamp collectors," and this was not far off until Victorian times, as they happily occupied themselves discovering and describing living things. By 1850, botanists counting flower petals wondered why they almost always came up with 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55—the well-known series called Fibonacci numbers. Mystical speculation abounded until 20th-century research proved that the dynamics of growing plants forces cells into specific mathematical relationships. Having dipped the reader's toe into his specialty, Stewart (Cows in the Maze: And Other Mathematical Explorations, 2010, etc.) proceeds to deliver a history of biology followed by a tour of current research. A fine chapter on Darwin and evolution contains almost no mathematics. The story of genetics, all the way up to the Human Genome Project, demands grade-school arithmetic to understand Mendel's rules of heredity. Readers with painful memories of high-school algebra will feel reassured because Stewart accessibly explains population growth, speciation, brain function, chaos and game theory, networking, symmetry and even the mechanism that produces animal stripes and spots. The lack of equations does not imply simplicity, however; all chapters begin with basics, but readers without a scientific background will struggle to finish more than one.

An ingenious overview of biology with emphasis on mathematical ideas—stimulating but requiring careful reading despite the lack of equations.

From the Publisher
Kirkus
“An ingenious overview of biology with emphasis on mathematical ideas – stimulating.”

New Scientist
“Stewart flexes his mathematical muscles when he explores concepts like symmetrical viruses and puzzle-solving slime moulds. As always, he explains complicated mathematical ideas brilliantly.”

The Guardian
“A timely account of why biologists and mathematicians are hooking up at last…Stewart is Britain's most brilliant and prolific populariser of mathematics…Mathematics of Life is dense with information, written with Stewart's characteristic lightness of touch and will please the dedicated maths reader…. [T]he book is a testament to the versatility of maths and how it is shaping our understanding of the world.”

Discover
“It is difficult to find many biologists who enjoy math, or vice versa, but British number cruncher Ian Stewart successfully crosses over. Here he argues that solving some of the biggest scientific mysteries, including life’s origins and prevalence in the universe, hinges on a union of these fields. He skillfully recasts the history of biology within a mathematical context…then applies his left-brained perspective to the hot new field of astrobiology. Bio majors: Try the book, then bite the bullet and enroll in Math 101.”

Booklist
“Though a complete understanding of how mathematics pries secrets out of nature requires long and rigorous study, Stewart conveys to general readers the fundamental axioms with lucidly accessible writing, supplemented with helpful charts and illustrations…. A rewarding adventure for the armchair scientist.”
 
Keith Devlin, Wall Street Journal
The Mathematics of Life is at its best in discussing the role that the discipline has played in our understanding of viruses…. Mr. Stewart’s discussion of the intersection of viruses and geometry, and other topics, is absorbing.”
 
BostonGlobe
“Stewart revels in intellectual wanderlust, taking us from explanations of why Fibonnaci’s sequence shows up so often in nature to rather in-depth treatments of evolutionary theory to number-crunching the possibilities of life on other planets…. Stewart is great at communicating wonder, but it’s often his skepticism that makes The Mathematics of Life such an enjoyable read – you get the sense that as a man who fully grasps numbers, he doesn’t take kindly to how frequently they are abused in mainstream treatments of science.” 
 
Science News
“In this engaging overview, a mathematician describes how the field of biomathematics is answering key questions about the natural world and the origins of life.”

Choice “The hallmark traits of clarity and though-provoking content are as evident in The Mathematics of Life as in the author’s other writings, but the added bonus of the interrelationship with biology makes this book all the more noteworthy…. Interested readers who are not mathematics devotees will still find the book highly informative and readable, given that the work avoids formulas while illustrating math’s emerging role in the field of biology…. Highly recommended.”

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465022380
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 6/7/2011
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 644,849
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Ian Stewart is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics and an active researcher at Warwick University in England. His writing has appeared in New Scientist, Discover, Scientific American, and many newspapers in the United Kingdom and United States. He lives in Warwick, England.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 20, 2011

    Great Book in that it spells out uses of Higher Math!

    If you enjoy reading about applications of mathematics, like I do, you will have a very hard time putting this book down. It is well written, scientifically and mathematically accurate, and very insightful.
    Ian Stewart basic theses for this book it that has been six revolutions in Biology: the microscope, systematic classification, evolution, discovery of genes, mapping of DNA, and MATHEMATICS. He describes the history of all of these revolutions by giving the history of how they were discovered and the following applications used by biologists. He also does a great job explaining what was meant by the original theories and how others have misused the findings for their own agenda. (He has a great insight on evolution and how "Survival of the Fittest" has hurt the theory of evolution). The last half of the book is the about the use of higher mathematics in biology: knot theory, topology, chaos, symmetry. Dr. Stewart did an outstanding job by not getting too technical in the math but also he did not provide a "Reader's Digest" explanation of the uses for these mathematical concepts. It was a good balance between a "Good Read" and a "Peer Reviewed Scientific Paper." I truly enjoyed this book.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2011

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