Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Two new books (and three old ones)

Biology is a big application area of mathematics at the moment, and here are two new books which I am looking forward to reading this summer:

Ian Stewart, Mathematics of LifeMartin Nowak, Super Cooperators
Stewart says that

"Mathematical theory and practice have always gone hand in hand, from the time primitive humans scratched marks on bones to record the phases of the Moon to the current search for the Higgs boson using the Large Hadron Collider. Isaac Newton's calculus informed us about the heavens, and over the past three centuries its successors have opened up the whole of mathematical physics: heat, light, sound, fluid mechanics, and later relativity and quantum theory. Mathematical thinking has become the central paradigm of the physical sciences.

"Until very recently, the life sciences were different. There, mathematics was at best a servant. It was used to perform routine calculations and to test the significance of statistical patterns in data. It didn't contribute much conceptual insight or understanding. Most of the time, it might as well not have existed.

"Today, this picture is changing. Modern discoveries in biology have opened up a host of important questions, and many of them are unlikely to be answered without significant mathematical input, The variety of matheamtical ideas now being used in the life sciences is enormous, and the demands of biology are stimulating the creation of entirely new mathematics, specifically aimed at living processes. Today's mathematicians and biologists are working together on some of the most difficult scientific problems that the human race has ever tackled - including the nature and origin of life itself.

"Biology will be the great mathematical frontier of the twenty-first century."

Curiously enough, three of the most exciting maths books I have come across, and which have influenced and inspired my teaching, as students will have noticed, also relate to the mathematics of life.

Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Co-operation
D'ARcy Thopmpson, On Growth and Form
Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue

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