Monday, June 9, 2014

Communicating Math - The Joy of X by Steven Strogatz

Book Review:  The Joy of X by Steven Strogatz

In this whimsical book about math, The Joy of X, Steven Strogatz creatively explains the many concepts of mathematics.  Strogatz uses entertaining analogies and stories to help clarify topics ranging from the mysterious e to the dreaded imaginary numbers. 

Readers begin their journey at the basic level of math – numbers – their origination and history into arithmetic.  Strogatz poses the question “Did humanity discover or invent numbers?” He proceeds to compare numbers to atoms, a theme we see emerge throughout the book.  Visual learners will appreciate the many illustrations and visual aids used to help reveal patterns for just about every concept including operations, imaginary numbers, algebra, story problems, quadratics, proofs, sine waves, and group theory.  Strogatz often connects math to art and science, a topic of debate within the world of mathematics.  I especially enjoyed the chapter about word problems and how to break down the often misleading implications that (sometimes deliberately) confuse the reader.   We wind our way through other topics such as functions, exponents, and logarithms,  where Strogatz explains that a logarithm is the “staple remover” for an exponent.  He delves into integral calculus and derivatives, including a chapter devoted to limits.  In this section, we read about how to continuously divide a circle, lining up its wedges into a rectangle, in order to show the connection between the area formula of a circle and the area formula of a rectangle.  Strogatz goes on to make sense of the confusing topics of conditional probability, linear algebra, and finally finishes the book at the idea of infinity. 

Throughout the book, we find examples of the practical applications of  math, often seeing connections to astronomy, engineering, and the medical field. Sprinkled into the chapters, readers will find references to and recommendations for some of Strogatz’s favorite related books, such as Nathan Carter’s Visual Group Theory.  Strogatz also references a terrific series of YouTube math videos by Vi Hart that creatively and artistically explore topics such as topology.  At the end of the book, the author includes a note section which digs further into some of the ideas he touches upon in each chapter.   

Although Strogatz lost me in a couple of chapters - I was not sure of the points he was trying to make in the chapters about statistics and infinity -  I appreciated his humorous and engaging writing style.  I think this would be a perfect book for college freshman; it would help them make sense of the connections and mysteries of mathematical concepts, possibly making math less intimidating. I also think this book could be a valuable teaching tool in middle school and high school (reading a chapter at a time) when introducing new math topics to students.  The Joy of X is a great and enjoyable read, sure to entertain and clarify concepts for people with a wide range of mathematical abilities.


  1. I thought this was a great, well-written review, Kathy! I read a few page of this book before, and also noticed that Strogatz did a good job of explaining a lot of the material to an audience that might not have a strong background in math. Being able to do math is such an important skill, and I wish more people were exposed to books like this to see that math isn't as unaccessible as it's typically thought to be.

  2. The book sounds very informative. Seems like the author discuses a lot of different areas of mathematics. Actually, for getting a Ph. d in math, a student needs to pick a solid area of research. So it seems like this book would be a great reference for prospective math graduates to explore the different mathematical research areas. Great review, I'd say you convinced me.

  3. 5Cs +
    Short but well written and described. You might break it up into paragraphs for improved coherence. I'm not sure if a more detailed example from the book would enhance or distract.