The best books on mathematics and life

Richard Hoshino Author Of The Math Olympian
By Richard Hoshino

The Books I Picked & Why

Mathematics for Human Flourishing

By Francis Su

Mathematics for Human Flourishing

Why this book?

This remarkable book is authored by Francis Su, the past president of the Mathematical Association of America. The author describes human flourishing as follows: “a wholeness of being and doing, of realizing one’s potential and helping others do the same, of acting with honour and treating others with dignity.” He explains how human beings, of all ages and ability levels, can experience flourishing through the doing of mathematics.

In each of the final twelve chapters, the author explores a trait of mathematics, how it relates to our journey as humans, and how the development of each trait enables us to flourish: Exploration, Meaning, Play, Beauty, Permanence, Truth, Struggle, Power, Justice, Freedom, Community, Love. As a mathematical researcher and educator, I have experienced these traits first-hand, and recommend this book to anyone and everyone.


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Our Days Are Numbered: How Mathematics Orders Our Lives

By Jason I. Brown

Our Days Are Numbered: How Mathematics Orders Our Lives

Why this book?

For decades, the most famous opening chord in rock and roll was an unsolved problem, since no one could reproduce it. But in 2004, Jason Brown, a professor at Dalhousie University, used mathematics to recreate the opening chord of the Beatles hit song, “A Hard Day’s Night”. I remember when newspapers around the world reported on Jason’s findings, as I was at Dalhousie at the time, as one of Jason’s Ph.D. students.

Jason’s Beatles story serves as the final chapter in this wonderful book, a collection of short vignettes about how mathematics relates to every aspect of our lives, including garbage pickup routes, grocery shopping, political polling, and social networks. The book’s thesis is that as we understand mathematics better, our lives become more meaningful. I couldn’t agree more.    


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The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy

By Sharon Bertsch McGrayne

The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy

Why this book?

The full title of this wonderful book is The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy. Bayes’ Theorem is a one-line mathematical formula, named after a Scottish church minister, that calculates the updated probability of an event occurring given new information that we receive.  Applications of Bayes’ Theorem are diverse and profound, from recommendation systems to automated translation algorithms to weather prediction.

This well-researched book does a deep dive into the most important characters of mathematical statistics over the past three centuries, and explains how Bayes’ Theorem was used to solve problems that were deemed unsolvable, including cracking the German Enigma Machine during World War II. I teach Bayes’ Theorem in several of my courses, and have found much inspiration in McGrayne’s book.


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The Art of Logic in an Illogical World

By Eugenia Cheng

The Art of Logic in an Illogical World

Why this book?

The author explains the importance of abstraction in logic, demonstrating its three main components: paths made of long chains of logic, packages made of a collection of concepts structured into a new compound unit, and pivots to build bridges to previously disconnected places.

Eugenia Cheng does an excellent job of abstracting principles of logic to better understand challenging real-world societal issues such as affirmative action and cancer screening. I found it quite compelling to understand how and why she came to her positions on various issues, through her axiom that "avoiding false negatives is more important than avoiding false positives." I appreciated the expertise by which she weaved numerous hard topics, in both mathematics and social justice, into a coherent and compelling narrative.


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Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football

By John Urschel, Louisa Thomas

Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football

Why this book?

John Urschel is an African-American mathematician specializing in graph theory, who recently completed his Ph.D. in mathematics at MIT. But he is better known for his football career, as a starting offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens. Six of Urschel’s papers were completed while he was still in the National Football League.

Mind and Matter is John Urschel’s memoir, co-authored with his wife Louisa Thomas. Each chapter alternates between football and mathematics, and how his success on the field translated to success in the classroom, and vice-versa. I loved how accessible the book is, for readers of all ages, and I fully agree with the author’s perspective that mathematics gives us a way of making sense of the world, and helping us see past the confusion of everyday life.


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