Reviewed by E.B. Heath
Poetry is the art of calling the same things by different names.
Mathematics is the art of calling different things by the same name.
Eddie Woo was recently named Australia’s Local Hero of the Year, and is one of the top ten teachers in the world. Woo’s unique teaching style attracted 300,000 subscribers to his on-line maths lessons. Thankfully, for those of us who are not U-Tubers, he has published Woo’s Wonderful World of Maths.
Mathematicians remove context, replacing it with algebraic ‘x’ or ‘y’; at this point many eyes glaze over. Detracting context equals confusion and tension. However, Woo piles on context by telling stories, and then methodically reveals the maths of the underlying patterns and processes. His entertaining style grabs readers’ attention, and comprehension follows. In chapter 1 Eddie Woo assures readers that we are all mathematicians at heart, because our brains are pattern-recognizing machines. Maths is all about patterns, and we live in an orderly, patterned universe. I’m feeling less tense already.
There are twenty-six chapters in Woo’s Wonderful World of Maths with titles such as ‘The Heavenly Circle’, ‘Music to my Ears’, ‘Why Your Pancreas is like a Pendulum’, ‘Lightning through your Veins’, ‘Teacups and (almost) infinite Money’, ‘E is a magic number’, and ‘What Sunflowers know about the Universe’, Intriguing.
Rainbows are a fascination to children, and in Chapter 2, ‘The Heavenly Circle’ Woo explains processes that give a rainbow its colours and elegant round shape.
The key is the roundness of raindrops and how the geometry of a circle makes the rays of light coming from the sun behave in a very predictable way. Understanding how rainbows are formed just adds to the fascination.
Chapter 3 ‘Music to my Ears’ – Woo takes his readers back to ancient Greece, and tells a story about Pythagoras, who found himself in a blacksmith’s workshop and couldn’t help but notice that the different sizes of the anvil created a different sound when struck. This story is used to introduce sinusoidal (sine) wave graphs that illustrate the pattern of different sounds. He explains why musical notes are shown as regular and even, (periodic), whereas sounds like footsteps or a car engine, appear uneven and chaotic. The sine wave graph also appears in Chapter 26, ‘Why my pancreas is like a pendulum’, to illustrate negative feedback systems, nature’s process of arriving at a state of balance. So demonstrating that a single structure or idea may be present in seemingly very different locations.
Chapter 4, ‘Lightning Through Your Veins’, Woo grabs reader’s attention by comparing lightning and our blood vessels! A photograph (page 30) does show a striking similarity in shape. It’s all about nature’s system of distribution. To explain Woo takes a scenic route, popping into ancient Greece again. This time it’s Euclid, geometry and Greek philosophy. This is a fun chapter that moves from Euclid’s flawless smooth shapes to fractal geometry, nature’s answer to growth and distribution, and so back to lightning and blood vessels.
The star of Chapters 5 and 6, ‘Tea cups and (almost) infinite money’, and ‘E is a magic number’ is 2.7182818. This number ‘e’ appears whenever exponential decay or growth is involved. Woo says this number is ‘baked into the laws of the universe’, and he uses teacups to illustrate exponential decay and exponential growth with the limits of compound interest. While 2.7182818 looks complicated, Woo’s explanations are visual and clear.
Eddie Woo’s enthusiasm for maths is quietly obvious on every page, but in Chapter 7, ‘What sunflowers know about the universe’, his passion positively leaps from the pages. And it is infectious! The reader can almost hear trumpets announcing … The Golden Ratio – 1.618. The Golden Ratio is everywhere in nature and human design. Woo’s favourite example is the rotational growth of a sunflower. This is a great chapter with so much useful information, not least when and why it is best to use either percentages, decimals or fractions.
There are many more excellent teaching chapters. The intriguing titles lead to equally intriguing truths. Woo feels there is hard evidence to view maths as the star discipline. In ‘What is Proof’ he makes the point that other disciplines, science, or archaeology suffer from ‘lack of comprehensive knowledge’, restricted by the limitations of tools or instruments to prove theories, whereas maths only requires logic, pen and paper, and its proofs are uniquely durable. Given that the foundation for many topics in this book were formulated in Ancient Greece, it’s hard to argue against ‘durable’.
Highly recommended for a wide range of age groups. Especially for readers who hate maths!
By Eddie Woo
Pan Macmillan Australia