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The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity

The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity

3.1 18
by Steven Strogatz

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"Delightful . . . easily digestible chapters include plenty of helpful examples and illustrations. You'll never forget the Pythagorean theorem again!"—Scientific American

Many people take math in high school and promptly forget much of it. But math plays a part in all of our lives all of the time, whether we know it or not. In The Joy of x,


"Delightful . . . easily digestible chapters include plenty of helpful examples and illustrations. You'll never forget the Pythagorean theorem again!"—Scientific American

Many people take math in high school and promptly forget much of it. But math plays a part in all of our lives all of the time, whether we know it or not. In The Joy of x, Steven Strogatz expands on his hit New York Times series to explain the big ideas of math gently and clearly, with wit, insight, and brilliant illustrations.

Whether he is illuminating how often you should flip your mattress to get the maximum lifespan from it, explaining just how Google searches the internet, or determining how many people you should date before settling down, Strogatz shows how math connects to every aspect of life. Discussing pop culture, medicine, law, philosophy, art, and business, Strogatz is the math teacher you wish you’d had. Whether you aced integral calculus or aren’t sure what an integer is, you’ll find profound wisdom and persistent delight in The Joy of x.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Amazon Best Books of 2012: Science and Math

"A delightful exploration of the beauty and fun of mathematics, in the best tradition of Lewis Carroll, George Gamow, and Martin Gardner. The Joy of x will entertain you, amaze you, and make you smarter."
— Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works and The Language Instinct

"Steven Strogatz should do for math what Julia Child did for cookery. He shows that this stuff really matters, and he shows that it can nourish us."
— James Gleick, author of The Information and Chaos

"Steve Strogatz may be the only person alive with the skill to pied piper me into the murky abyss of set theory. I literally learned something on every page, despite my innumerate brain. This is a fantastic book, conveyed with clarity, technical mastery and infectious joy."
— Jad Abumrad, host of Radiolab

"This joyous book will remind you just how beautiful and mesmerizing math can be. Steve Strogatz is the teacher we all wish we had."
— Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein

"I loved this beautiful book from the first page. With his unique ingenuity and affable charm, Strogatz disassembles mathematics as a subject, both feared and revered, and reassembles it as a world, both accessible and magical. The Joy of x is, well, a joy."
— Janna Levin, Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Barnard College, Columbia University, and author of How the Universe Got Its Spots and A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines

"Amazingly, mathematicians can see patterns in the universe that the rest of us are usually blind to. With clarity and dry wit, The Joy of x opens a window onto this hidden world with its landscapes of beauty and wonder."
— Alan Alda

"This book is, simply put, fantastic. It introduces the reader to the underlying concepts of mathematics — presenting reasons for its unfamiliar language and explaining conceptual frameworks that do in fact make understanding complex problems easier. In a world where mathematics is essential but, largely, poorly understood, Steve Strogatz’s teaching skills and deft writing style are an important contribution."
— Lisa Randall, Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science, Harvard University, and author of Warped Passages and Knocking on Heaven's Door

"Strogatz’s graceful prose is perfectly pitched for a popular math book: authoritative without being patronizing, friendly without being whimsical, and always clear and accessible. His x marks the spot – and hits it."
— Alex Bellos, author of Here's Looking at Euclid

"Strogatz has discovered a magical function that transforms ‘math’ into ‘joy,’ page after wonderful page. He takes everything that ever mystified you about math and makes it better than clear — he makes it wondrous, delicious, and amazing."
— Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of Stumbling on Happiness

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Read an Excerpt


I have a friend who gets a tremendous kick out of science, even though he’s an artist. Whenever we get together all he wants to do is chat about the latest thing in psychology or quantum mechanics. But when it comes to math, he feels at sea, and it saddens him. The strange symbols keep him out. He says he doesn’t even know how to pronounce them.

In fact, his alienation runs a lot deeper. He’s not sure what mathematicians do all day, or what they mean when they say a proof is elegant. Sometimes we joke that I should just sit him down and teach him everything, starting with 1 + 1 = 2 and going as far as we can.

Crazy as it sounds, that’s what I’ll be trying to do in this book. It’s a guided tour through the elements of math, from preschool to grad school, for anyone out there who’d like to have a second chance at the subject—but this time from an adult perspective. It’s not intended to be remedial. The goal is to give you a better feeling for what math is all about and why it’s so enthralling to those who get it.

We’ll discover how Michael Jordan’s dunks can help explain the fundamentals of calculus. I’ll show you a simple—and mind-blowing—way to understand that staple of geometry, the Pythagorean theorem. We’ll try to get to the bottom of some of life’s mysteries, big and small: Did O.J. do it? How should you flip your mattress to get the maximum wear out of it? How many people should you date before settling down? And we’ll see why some infinities are bigger than others.

Math is everywhere, if you know where to look. We’ll spot sine waves in zebra stripes, hear echoes of Euclid in the Declaration of Independence, and recognize signs of negative numbers in the run-up to World War I. And we’ll see how our lives today are being touched by new kinds of math, as we search for restaurants online and try to understand—not to mention survive—the frightening swings in the stock market.

By a coincidence that seems only fitting for a book about numbers, this one was born on the day I turned fifty. David Shipley, who was then the editor of the op-ed page for the New York Times, had invited me to lunch on the big day (unaware of its semicentennial significance) and asked if I would ever consider writing a series about math for his readers. I loved the thought of sharing the pleasures of math with an audience beyond my inquisitive artist friend.

“The Elements of Math” appeared online in late January 2010 and ran for fifteen weeks. In response, letters and comments poured in from readers of all ages. Many who wrote were students and teachers. Others were curious people who, for whatever reason, had fallen off the track somewhere in their math education but sensed they were missing something worthwhile and wanted to try again. Especially gratifying were the notes I received from parents thanking me for helping them explain math to their kids and, in the process, to themselves. Even my colleagues and fellow math aficionados seemed to enjoy the pieces—when they weren’t suggesting improvements (or perhaps especially then!).

All in all, the experience convinced me that there’s a profound but little-recognized hunger for math among the general public. Despite everything we hear about math phobia, many people want to understand the subject a little better. And once they do, they find it addictive.

The Joy of x is an introduction to math’s most compelling and far-reaching ideas. The chapters—some from the original Times series—are bite-size and largely independent, so feel free to snack wherever you like. If you want to wade deeper into anything, the notes at the end of the book provide additional details and suggestions for further reading.

For the benefit of readers who prefer a step-by-step approach, I’ve arranged the material into six main parts, following the lines of the traditional curriculum.

Part 1, “Numbers,” begins our journey with kindergarten and grade-school arithmetic, stressing how helpful numbers can be and how uncannily effective they are at describing the world.

Part 2, “Relationships,” generalizes from working with numbers to working with relationships between numbers. These are the ideas at the heart of algebra. What makes them so crucial is that they provide the first tools for describing how one thing affects another, through cause and effect, supply and demand, dose and response, and so on—the kinds of relationships that make the world complicated and rich.

Part 3, “Shapes,” turns from numbers and symbols to shapes and space—the province of geometry and trigonometry. Along with characterizing all things visual, these subjects raise math to new levels of rigor through logic and proof.

In part 4, “Change,” we come to calculus, the most penetrating and fruitful branch of math. Calculus made it possible to predict the motions of the planets, the rhythm of the tides, and virtually every other form of continuous change in the universe and ourselves. A supporting theme in this part is the role of infinity. The domestication of infinity was the breakthrough that made calculus work. By harnessing the awesome power of the infinite, calculus could finally solve many long-standing problems that had defied the ancients, and that ultimately led to the scientific revolution and the modern world.

Part 5, “Data,” deals with probability, statistics, networks, and data mining, all relatively young subjects inspired by the messy side of life: chance and luck, uncertainty, risk, volatility, randomness, interconnectivity. With the right kinds of math, and the right kinds of data, we’ll see how to pull meaning from the maelstrom.

As we near the end of our journey in part 6, “Frontiers,” we approach the edge of mathematical knowledge, the borderland between what’s known and what remains elusive. The sequence of chapters follows the familiar structure we’ve used throughout—numbers, relationships, shapes, change, and infinity—but each of these topics is now revisited more deeply, and in its modern incarnation.

I hope that all of the ideas ahead will provide joy—and a good number of Aha! moments. But any journey needs to begin at the beginning, so let’s start with the simple, magical act of counting.


Meet the Author

STEVEN STROGATZ is a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell University. A renowned teacher and one of the world’s most highly cited mathematicians, he has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio’s RadioLab. He is the author of Sync and The Calculus of Friendship, the story of his thirty-year correspondence with his high school math teacher.

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The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
curiousDD More than 1 year ago
I bought this to read on my NOOK, but was unhappy with the way equations were displayed (it IS a math book). It seemed that they tried to left-justify equations but sent them about 1/2 inch off the edge of the display. From the context I could usually figure out what was missing, but it was annoying.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As has been said by the first two reviewers, the ebook version of this puts the math examples partially off the screen, rendering them illegible. One star, untill someone fixes the formatting problem that the math examples have. I've notified the publisher (but got no response). I've called B&N customer service but was told it could take 3 weeks or such to be remedied. This is the first ebook that I ever paid for. Not a good experience, B&N.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Example equations not formatted properly and fall off the edge of the page. Changed font size and turned publisher defalts on and off, still not good. Why doesn't anyone do quality check. Could be good but pretty worthless if you can't follow the examples.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think it is sad that this book is getting poor reviews because of technological issues with the Nook. Hopefully these issues reflect how valuable an actual BOOK really is and how pathetically reliant our society is on technology. Go out and buy this book! Steven Strogatz is an incredible mathematician with a unique gift for taking the cold hard facts of mathematics and showing his students and readers just how beautiful the world of math really is. Whether you are a student, a lover of numbers, or even hated math in high school, you will love this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am very disappointed. I bought the version for the Nook at only a $3 discount from the paper version even though there is no cost for printing, shipping, storing, or clearing out remaindered copies. And what did I get for that? Many of the illustrations are too small to be easily understood on the Nook, and some of the mathematical symbols in the text translate to a '?' in a grey box because the Nook doesn't understand them, rendering the accompanying text meaningless unless you are already in the know. I don't think they did any editing or formatting for the digital version at all. The book itself is wonderful but I wish I paid the extra $3. And I am sure that, if I had, the profit margin on the sale would have been significantly less.
room145teacher More than 1 year ago
Buy the paperback.  You won't be disappointed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really want to read this book but at $14.85 I'll wait until the formattimg has been corrected.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm eager to read this; the sample is quite inviting. But what is the status of the reported format issues?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book as an overview of mathematics - where it came from, how it is used (often in ways I had not recognized), and why I should care. I bought it to have as a reference and share with others.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
However all suggest get paperback or from library. Will do
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fun series of essays on mathematical topics. The author's take on the Hilbert Hotel was the clearest explanation of the differences between infinites I have read. I read this book on my Nook, and experienced no formatting issues; those of you "waiting for the formatting to be corrected" need wait no longer!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read the book from front to back and it is worth the read. Try it for yourself and take it for a spin at your local library! You'll be glad to add it to your book collection.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I would like to purchase this book for my Nook, but was put-off by the comments on formatting. As soon as the formatting is corrected I would purchase it.