...a companion blog to "Math-Frolic," specifically for interviews, book reviews, weekly-linkfests, and longer posts or commentary than usually found at the Math-Frolic site.

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"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show." ---Bertrand Russell (1907) Rob Gluck

"I have come to believe, though very reluctantly, that it [mathematics] consists of tautologies. I fear that, to a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-legged animal is an animal." ---Bertrand Russell (1957)

******************************************************************** Rob Gluck

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Jim Henle Serves Up Math, Piping Fresh



"The Proof and the Pudding" by Jim Henle


Back in February I called Michael Harris's "Mathematics Without Apologies" perhaps the oddest popular mathematics read I'd ever come across... and in a serious, philosophical and psychological way, it was. But now, just a couple months later I come across Jim Henle's short "The Proof and the Pudding," which is also one of the oddest math volumes I've seen, but in a jaunty, playful, and completely opposite way from Harris's.
This book juxtaposes mathematics, mostly puzzles/games and the like, with cooking recipes and tries to claim the two activities share a lot in common. I don't think he's fully convincing that "Mathematics and gastronomy are practically the same," but he is convincing that they both are fun, and thus successful in his "secret goal... to elevate the status of fun."

Henle's recipes look delicious... but no more-so than his mathematics. His joy from both pastimes nearly jumps off every tersely-composed page, and is contagious. I'm not a cook, but still feel the urge to try some of his gastronomic suggestions. Henle had my mouth watering... and my brain neurons firing from the math puzzles that are reminiscent of Martin Gardner columns. Any fan of Gardner's recreational math (and I hope that includes EVERYone who reads this blog) will enjoy the mathy excursions throughout this small volume.  As to how useful these games are I'm not sure, but as Henle quotes a colleague at one point:
"There are two kinds of mathematics: applied mathematics and mathematics that is not yet applied." ;-)

Most of Henle's math fun is connected to the paths traveled by 'bouncing dots or balls' inside rectangles or boxes, and I even wonder if Henle's book might do for these little games what Gardner's presentation of John Conway's "Game of Life" did for the obsession with that game -- on a side-note, Conway's less famous recreational creation called "Phutball" or "Philosophers' football" also gets some mention herein, along with brief forays into Sudoku variations and card tricks. None of it is overly deep or complicated; as Henle says, he is trying to show "features of mathematics" without really "doing math." And he does so in a stimulating way. Toward the end he also pays homage to both Julia Child and Gardner as inspirations for the volume.

Vanity, gluttony, parsimony, elegance, playfulness, creativity, and even ethics, are just some of the features that Henle argues are found in both cooking and mathematics. One section also talks about the importance of "messing up" in both endeavors and trying things out that fail... very reminiscent of advice I've seen from both Keith Devlin and Paul Lockhart (and perhaps others) in the past.

If I was an editor at a publishing house, and someone came to me with an idea of combining the disparate contents of this book I think I would've said, 'Thanks, but I'll pass on that'... so am very glad that the editors at Princeton University Press are far wiser than I, because this book is a charmer. Henle does such a great job of pulling you into his world and his passion, that you enjoy the alternation of topics as much as intended; probably even more-so if you yourself seriously like dabbling in the kitchen.

The volume is a fun, short romp (~160 pgs), but a review won't give the full flavor of it... you need to just pick it up and begin reading on your own to get sucked into Henle's idiosyncratic delights. And how often do you get to salivate while reading a math book?! You will here. Try not to drool on the pages.


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