Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Count on Mathematics to Subtract the Mystery from Life

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Count on Mathematics to Subtract the Mystery from Life

Article excerpt

Towing Icebergs,

Falling Dominoes,

and Other Adventures in Applied Mathematics By Robert Banks Princeton University Press 427 pp., $29.95 The noted science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once observed that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a magic trick. In "Towing Icebergs, Falling Dominoes, and Other Adventures in Applied Mathematics," engineer Robert Banks lifts the curtain to show off some modern technological sleight of hand. Usually, learning how a trick works disappoints, but the mathematical conjuring explained here has just the opposite effect: Instead of feeling let down, one marvels at the intricate wonders revealed. This is not a book for the mathematically faint of heart. Banks is a former professor and dean of engineering at the University of Illinois, Chicago campus and does not scruple to include equations of intimidating complexity. Some knowledge of differential and integral calculus is necessary to follow all the math completely. However, this book still contains much that is interesting, even fascinating, for readers whose grasp of higher mathematics stopped at high school algebra. For example, in "The Ups and Downs of Professional Football," the author notes that for teams in the National Football League, there is a cycle of wins and losses that averages about 8.2 years. "This desirable 'up and down' pattern of team performance is accomplished by the draft choice procedure of the National Football League. Overly simplified, the order of selection of new talent by NFL teams is in reverse order to the performance ranking of the previous season. Not surprisingly, it takes a certain amount of time for a team to turn around - for better or worse." Mathematical patterns affect more than just football teams. The oscillations in the performance of the NFL can also be seen in areas as diverse as business, biology, ecology, and weather. For instance, Banks describes the early experience of microbiologists trying to show that populations of organisms grow according to a mathematical curve called the logistic equation. …

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