Book Review: 17 Equations That Changed the World

What could be more boring than mathematical equations?  The majority of folks would be hard pressed to find something to answer that hypothetical query. Myself included 🙂 I’ll be honest, I’m a math minor and I picked up this book on a whim in a bookstore thinking to myself “Now why would anyone want to write or buy a book on 17 equations?” I flipped through it and immediately knew that I had to consume the rest of this book.

What Stewart is able to do is to take these 17 equations that manifest in everything we do, everything we observe, everything bit of space around us and bring life to them. He presents the opening of each chapter with a concise summary of these equations that helps immensely in revealing the underlying nature of the equations and then goes into the history of the creation (discovery?) of each of these equations and it’s been an eye-opening read.

As an example, having majored in computer science, I worked constantly with logarithms and natural logs (there’s lumber joke here somewhere) but never once understood the nature of logarithms. How did they come about? Why do they exist? What problem do they address? Just what in the heck is a logarithm? I knew them only in the abstract — as operations that yielded a result; I knew them as a general pattern but not the nature of the logarithm. The second chapter simply blew me away with the clarity and simplicity with which Stewart was able to pull back the covers on what logarithms actually mean. No one in my years of formal education had bothered to explain it in the same way that Stewart does in this book.

While I cannot say that this book is for everyone, I will say that I find it is surprisingly approachable for most folks who are scientifically or mathematically inclined. Certainly, there are many equations and plenty of mathematics (and it gets especially complex (pun intended 🙂 in the later chapters. However, I think this book is still immensely readable and approachable, even for those who have never ventured deep into the vast field of mathematics or have long moved past their days of calculus, linear algebra, and so on. I, for one, will make sure that my daughter reads the chapter on logarithms as it starts to seep into her curriculum one day to make sure she understands the “why” and so that she has an appreciation for all of the history and magic behind that little “log n” button on her calculator.

This book is incredibly well written, well presented such that it is approachable for a large audience, an entertaining read, and highly recommended. If you’ve read this review to this point, you should probably just go ahead and by this book!

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