Numbers all the way

NATURE'S NUMBERS: DISCOVERING ORDER AND PATTERN IN THE UNIVERSE Ian Steward . Widenfeld and Nicholson . Distributed by India Book House . 1995 . Price Rs 385

By Shobhit Mahajan
Published: Wednesday 31 July 1996

the universe we live in is full of patterns. The regularity of seasons, the movement of heavenly bodies and the intricate pattern of waves on a beach are all ubiquitous patterns around us. The human mind has developed a formal system of thought to study and understand these patterns mathematics. Mathematics has not only helped humankind in understanding its surroundings but has also assisted it in exploiting them. Whether it be the Sulabh Sutras (an ancient guide to the construction of sacrificial altars) or the fuzzy logic controllers for consumer electronics, mathematics has been of immense practical utility. Ian Stewart's latest book is an attempt to introduce the lay person to the power of mathematics. The author of many popular books on mathematics like Does God Play Dice , Stewart, a professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick, Coventry, uk, is eminently suited for the job. The book is part of a series on the masters of science in which leading scientists describe the state of knowledge in their field and speculate about the future.

Stewart begins by describing the natural world and the role played by patterns in it. He maintains that the role of mathematics is to give us a deeper vision of the universe in which we live and of our own place within it. Understanding nature and predicting phenomena have always been important functions of mathematics. He also points out to the fact that almost every single thing we use is based on mathematics, though many of us may not be aware of it. But it is almost axiomatic that at least somebody must understand it and more importantly, discover newer concepts to improve the working of things around us. Thus, he makes a strong case for supporting research in pure mathematics even though the payoffs may not be immediate.

Though very well-written and eminently readable, the book somehow leaves the reader disappointed. There seems to be just a little bit about too many subjects, which would suffice to whet one's appetite, but would not be enough to really make the subject appreciable. The discussion, though superb, is all too brief to be of any great use. And coming from a writer of Stewart's calibre, this is indeed a disappointment.
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