On Our Bookshelves- How to Bake Pi – An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics

***

BOOK: How to Bake π–An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics

AUTHOR: Eugenia Cheng

YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2015

REVIEW:

***

How to Bake Pi is simply terrific–one of those unclassifiable books that’s incredibly smart and incredibly appealing.  It’s about math, and why it’s more than just numbers, why it’s more weird and wonderful than you probably think, why math makes hard things easier, why it shouldn’t be frightening or baffling, and what category theory is.  It’s also about cooking and baking–and since math is about drawing analogies, Ms. Cheng provides us with a myriad of examples including custard, cake, lasagna, baked Alaska, fruit crisp, flourless chocolate cake, bread pudding, and all manner of other delicious treats.  (She even includes the recipes in case we want to try some of these treats, and analogies, at home.)

***

Sounds intriguing, yes?  What else is it about, you ask?  Well, abstraction, and using your imagination.  How children learn to count. Lego blocks. Running the New York City marathon.  Generalizations.  Topology and how a bagel is like a coffee cup.  Rationality.  Logic.  Paradoxes.  Small talk at cocktail parties.  Being a female mathematician trying to make small talk at cocktail parties.  St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Families.  Mathematical family trees (Ms. Cheng’s mathematical great-grandfather was Alan Turing).  Musical family trees (her pianistic great-grandmother was Clara Schumann).  Belief.  Understanding.  Knowledge.  And, here’s the  most important part, I think…I admit that I do not understand every bit of her explanations regarding her esoteric field of study, but what I absolutely do understood here is the joy and the beauty that she has found in mathematics.  Her love for her chosen subject, her joy in teaching it, is infectious.  It makes me want to learn more and read more.  It makes me want to take one of her classes (alas, a bit geographically inconvenient for me).  It makes me want to read her other books.  It makes me want to meet her at a bar and talk for hours, or visit her and try some olive oil plum cake.  I thought of Howard Thurman’s famous quotation while I was reading How to Bake π: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs.  Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Her aim is to rid the world of “math phobia.” I’d say she’s well on her way.  

***

Here’s how the book ends:

“…understanding is still kept a secret, at least in mathematics.  Students of all levels are shown the rules but kept in the dark about the reasons.  We encourage children to ask the question ‘Why?’ but only up to a point, because beyond that point we might not understand it ourselves.  So we stifle their quest for illumination to match our own inability to provide it.  Instead of being afraid of that darkness, we should bring everyone to the edge of it and say: Look! Here is an area that needs illumination.  Bring fire, torches, candles–anything you can think of that will cast light.  Then we can lay down our foundations and build our great buildings, cure diseases, invent fabulous new machines, and whatever else we think the human race should be doing.  But first of all we need some light.”

Pick up this book, learn and enjoy, and let there be light upon us all.

***

RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 4 Whistles

***

HOW TO PURCHASE: Amazon

***

Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

***

Lead-In Image (Book Cover) by Basic Books

***

ALSO ON OUR BOOKSHELVES:

A Countess Below Stairs, Eva Ibbotson

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles

A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman

A Patchwork Planet, Anne Tyler

A Room With a View, E.M. Forster

A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley

A Wandering Eye: Travels with My Phone, Miguel Flores-Vianna

After the Fall, Dan Santat

An English Murder, Cyril Hare

An Infamous Army, Georgette Heyer

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Anne Of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery

Arthur & George, Julian Barnes

Ayesha at Last, Uzma Jalaluddin

Before the Fall, Noah Hawley

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon

Bonjour Tristesse, Francoise Sagan

Books for Living, Will Schwalbe

Bunker Hill, Nathan Philbrick

Burmese Days, George Orwell

Cannery Row, John Steinbeck

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White

Cheaper by the Dozen, Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. & Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

Cloudstreet, Tim Winton

Cockpit Confidential, Patrick Smith

Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

Death in Profile, Guy Fraser-Sampson

Decorating a Room of One’s Own, Susan Harlan

Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill

Diary of a Provincial Lady, E.M. Delafield

Doctor Jazz, Hayden Carruth

Ed Emberly’s Drawing Book of Animals, Ed Emberly

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

Endangered Pleasures, Barbara Holland

Envious Casca, Georgette Heyer

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Fever Dream, Samanta Schweblin

Foreign Affairs, Alison Lurie

Frederica, Georgette Heyer

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L. Konigsburg

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers

Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

Good Poems, Garrison Keillor

Gowanus Waters, Steven Hirsch

Grey Mask, Patricia Wentworth

H is for Haiku, Sydell Rosenberg

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, & Jack Thorne

Heads in Beds, Jacob Tomsky

Hemingway Didn’t Say That, Garson O’Toole

Here is New York, E.B. White

Hide My Eyes, Margery Allingham

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, Laurie Colwin

Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou

I Will Always Write Back, Caitlin Alifirenka & Martin Ganda with Liz Welch

If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, Stephanie Barron

Jim Trelease’s Read-Aloud Handbook, edited and revised by Cyndi Giorgis

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Anthony Bourdain

Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke

Lexicon, Max Barry

Lizard Music, Daniel Pinkwater

Longbourn, Jo Baker

Madeleine’s Ghost, Robert Girardi

Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz

Malice Aforethought, Frances Iles

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer

Momo, Michael Ende

Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut

My Life in France, Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

New York New York, Richard Berenholtz

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

Notorious RBG, Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik

On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

One Summer: America 1927, Bill Bryson

Out of the Blackout, Robert Bernard

Parnassus on Wheels & The Haunted Bookshop, Christopher Morley

Plotted: A Literary Atlas, Andrew DeGraff

Possession, A.S. Byatt

Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle…and Other Modern Verse, Stephen Dunning, Edward Lueders, and Hugh Smith

Ringworld, Larry Niven

Rose Madder, Stephen King

Sanditon, Jane Austen and Another Lady

Selected Poems of Langston Hughes

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rivelli

Sing and Shine On!, Nick Page

Sorcery and Cecelia: Or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot, Patricia Wrede & Caroline Stevermer

Snow, Orhan Pamuk

Still the Promised Land, Natwar Gandhi

Straying from the Flock: Travels in New Zealand, Alexander Elder

Strength in What Remains: Tracy Kidder

Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart

Tales of the Unexpected, Roald Dahl

The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Ed., Lewis Carroll & Martin Gardner (with original illustrations by John Tenniel)

The Book of Forgotten Authors, Christopher Fowler

The Book of Imaginary Beings, Jorge Luis Borges

The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith

The Daily Jane Austen: A Year of Quotes, Devoney Looser

The Dancer of Izu, Kawabata Yasunari

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

The Great Passage, Shion Miura

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

The House with a Clock in Its Walls, John Bellairs

The Ice House, Minette Walters

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

The Longbourn Letters, Rose Servitova

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman

The Making of Jane Austen, Devoney Looser

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, Oliver Sacks

The Martian, Andy Weir

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, P.D. James

The Missing Piece, Shel Silverstein

The Modern Kids, Jona Frank

The Monogram Murders, Sophie Hannah

The Mother & Child Project, Hope Through Healing Hands (ed.)

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, Thad Carhart

The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark

The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion

The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss, Theodor Geisel (illustrator), Maurice Sendak (introduction)

The Snowy Day, Ezra Jack Keats

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin

The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Melanie Benjamin

The Tale of Despereaux, Kate DiCamillo

The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer

The Three Questions, Jon J Muth

The Translator, Nina Schuyler

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce

The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories, Saki

The War on Normal People, Andrew Yang

The Weird World of Wes Beattie, John Norman Harris

The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin

The Woman in Black, Susan Hill

The Women in Black, Madeleine St John

They Call Me Naughty Lola, David Rose

Thing Explainer, Randall Munroe

Touch Not the Cat, Mary Stewart

Ways of Seeing, John Berger

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

What If?, Randall Munroe

When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi

Worth a Thousand Words, Brigit Young

You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life, Eleanor Roosevelt

Up At the Villa, W. Somerset Maugham

84, Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff