Veronica Vazquez, NCSSM Instructor of Mathematics
If your family is anything like mine, there is a good chance you are planning a beach vacation sometime in the coming weeks. My extended family has a decades long tradition of gathering in South Padre Island, Texas for a relaxing week of sand and surf. This year, the pandemic has thrown a wrench in the works. The border between the state of Nuevo Leon, Mexico and Texas is closed to motor vehicle traffic; the condo my aunt and uncle have owned for as long as I can remember will be eerily unoccupied this July. But my sister and I and our respective families are determined to pack just as much excitement as usual into our getaway. And speaking of packing, I will be packing some mathy beach reads for those sunny days lounging on the sand. Here are three of my favorites.
Do Dice Play God? The Mathematics of Uncertainty
Published in 2019, this book is available in hardcover and ebook versions. (But really, you should not bring your device to the beach.) At 266 pages long plus notes, you might be thinking, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to read that much math right now.” Never fear, in fact, this book is comprised of 18 chapters that mostly can be read in any order! Some chapters will contain comfortingly familiar concepts if you have recently had a course in statistics, but with historical details or surprising puzzles that may be totally new. For example, this twist on a familiar puzzle. The Smiths have exactly two children. You are told that at least one is a girl born on a Tuesday. What is the probability that both children are girls? Counterintuitively, the additional information does make a difference in the resulting probability. Skip directly to Chapter 6 to find out why!
If you happen to look up at the sky while pushing your toes into the sand, you may notice that it is rapidly darkening. “Hmm…” you might say. “There was no rain in the forecast, was there?” You check your weather app (But really, you should not bring your device to the beach) and see that there is a 60% chance of rain in the afternoon. And you wonder what that means exactly. When you are told that there is a 1/8 chance of flipping three heads in a row using a fair coin you understand that that means that if one flipped three times over and over and over, about 1/8th of the time, the flips would result in three heads in a row. But what can it possibly mean that there is a 60% chance of rain? The weather on the beach in Texas on the 18th of July is not an experiment that can be run hundreds of times. So, what meaning can “…a 60% chance of rain” possibly hold for a meteorologist? Skip directly to Chapter 11 to impress your family with the answer.
Now, if mystery novels are your usual kind of thing, you may feel uncomfortable skipping around in your mathy beach read. If you like mysteries, then this next book is for you.
The Last Equation of Isaac Severy: A Novel in Clues
This debut novel opens with the last moments in the life of the titular character, a professor of mathematics (named after Newton) with a large family he is about to leave behind. Just before his memorial service, his adoptive granddaughter—a homeless bookstore owner in Seattle—receives an unexpected assignment. She can trust no one with the details.
This debut novel, and Edgar award nominee, was published in 2018 and is available in paperback. The Edgar awards are specifically for works in the genre of mystery. Thus, no special math background is necessary to love this novel. There are no graphs and no need to whip out a pencil and paper to complete any problem sets. This is a clever character driven novel with themes related to academia, genius, secrets, and dysfunction. If you enjoy unusual mysteries, this novel is the solution to the problem of finding your next one!
Mathematics for Human Flourishing
Finally, I can’t help myself, I have to recommend Mathematics for Human Flourishing, by Francis Su with reflections by Christopher Jackson. I have recommended this book more times than I can count since its publication in 2020. For this book, you will need a pencil and some scrap paper because it is all about the enduring power of mathematics to encourage us to play and explore and connect. You will certainly want to interrupt your own reading and that of an indulgent companion so you can try out the card trick on page 46!
Dotted with history, puzzles, and games, this engaging book also contains deeply provocative stories from Professor Su’s decades of learning and teaching mathematics. One of my favorite anecdotes involves the result when he discovers evidence of cheating on a homework assignment and sends an email asking the guilty parties to step forward. What follows is a moving account of the forces that lead students to present both honest and dishonest work.
Su’s coauthor on this work is Christopher Jackson. He is not a professor at any university, but rather, a convicted felon who never finished high school. Yet, he loves mathematics. Many of us studied or study mathematics in order to gain educational opportunities, launch careers, or advance in our fields. These motivations are entirely absent for an inmate facing a 32-year sentence. What is left? The solution is in the title; mathematics is for human flourishing.