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Humble Pi: When bad maths has real-world consequences

Matt Parker. Photo/Supplied

With its dad jokes and puns, maths guru Matt Parker’s book is kinda annoying, writes Greg Dixon.

What’s worse, a maths teacher who’s a tyrant, or one who wants to be “friends” with the kids? I had both breeds at high school, and learnt something from each, I guess. But looking back, I had more – admittedly grudging – respect for the former, a chalk-and-duster thrower, than the latter. No one likes a try-hard.

Which I’m sure explains why I was a bit irritated by Matt Parker’s self-conscious attempts to find the fun in the real-world perils of dodgy maths in his new book, Humble Pi.

Parker, a teacher-turned-maths “communicator”, and (improbably, by my calculation) a successful stand-up comedian, undoubtedly knows his stuff. But, boy, does he want to be your new best friend. The full gamut of fun teacher ploys are here: the self-deprecating anecdotes, the awful puns (starting with his book’s title), the wacky experiments, the dad jokes. He also has a weakness for contractions such as “kinda”, which is frankly kinda trying over 313 pages that, also irritatingly, are numbered so they count backwards from 313 down to page one. Laugh? No, not really.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

But Parker has done the research. His book may annoy, but it is most certainly packed with stories illustrating the sort of damage and death tolls that come from mathematical miscalculation. A surprising number seem to involve things collapsing, mostly bridges. A few – such as London’s Millennium Bridge, which went all wobbly – cost a fortune to fix after they do something they shouldn’t.

Our reliance on computers has obviously broadened our opportunities as a species to cock things up, through miscalculation, misuse, algorithms going crazy or just basic software and hardware limitations generating trouble. I didn’t know, for example, that we may be faced with another Y2K-style event in 2038, because of the way 32-bit computers keep time.

There are also chapters on predictable and unpredictable failures in rounding, statistics, averages, probabilities and random numbers. In between, there are plenty of dunderheaded blunderers, and one or two helpful suggestions for fun ways to trick friends.

Parker is good at explaining and pulling things apart so that most people will understand what he’s talking about, but he made my head hurt more than once. He was, I suspect, a good and patient maths teacher. It’s just his maths bro humour I can’t abide.

Parker has subtitled his book “A comedy of maths errors”. Subtract the comedy, add miscellany, multiply or divide by how much you love or hate fun teachers and you find it equals a book you either can’t put down or want to throw in the fire.

Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors, by Matt Parker (Penguin, $40)

This article was first published in the June 22, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.