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The Handy Math Answer Book
Patricia Barnes-Svarney and Thomas E. Svarney
Publisher: Visible Ink Press (2012)
Details: 512 pages, Paperback
Topics: Mathematics for the General Reader
MAA Review[Reviewed by James Valles, Jr., on 12/31/2012]
The Handy Math Answer Book attempts to answer, in an overabundance of ways, two age-old questions from K–12 students: “What is this?” and “Where is this used in real life?” In approaching those curious about mathematics with a question-and-answer method, this books poses, and answers, over 1000 questions covering various aspects of mathematics, direct and tangential.
While not explicit in the formatting, this book can best be thought of in three sections: historical mathematics and definitions, mathematics applied to other subjects, and recreational and everyday mathematics. The definitions and background of the technical aspects of mathematics are somewhat superficial, but this is to be expected from a book aspiring to be a beginners’ resource. For some questions the historical background is more informative than one might expect, such as who came up with the idea of imaginary numbers (p. 77), what the Boltzmann equation is (p. 294), and even the origin of the plus symbol and the minus symbol (p. 95).
The book seems to lose steam when it begins to explore mathematical connections to other science fields, such as classical physics, meteorology, and civil engineering. The questions and answers posed focus more on topics specific to the field of concern and the mathematics involved just happens to be involved.
For a book about mathematics, there were issues with typography that were unexpected. There were instances where the use of Greek letters would have aided the readability of the text, and the book demonstrated that they were available but not always used. The formula for average deviation (p. 265) used Σ and μ (albeit awkwardly sized), but in describing superstrings, stating the quantity /(2 p a’), the book used a’ and explained this stood for “alpha prime” (p. 289). Again, for readability, consistency in variable usage of italics and non-italics distract from the ease of use (see p. 282 and 283). Some formula errors need to be corrected as well, such as the derivative power rule (p. 228), d/dx cos–1 u, d/dx tan–1 u, and d/dx cot–1 u (p. 231).
Despite what may appear some shortcomings, this book does serve a very useful purpose. As a resource, this book provides many ideas for short student research projects, it can help secondary mathematics and science teachers by providing them informational tidbits they can use to enhance their classroom curriculum. For the mathematical layman the everyday mathematics section does provide some interesting information. This book is indeed a handy reference, due to the historical information it contains, and (based on its Introduction) that is exactly what the book aspires to be.
James Valles, Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. While his main interest is playing DJ Hero with his kids, he also finds time to research logarithmic potential charges, pre-service teachers’ understanding of fractions, and academic self-efficacy issues of minority students.