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Math for the Frightened

Colin Pask
Prometheus Books
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Charles Ashbacher
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To be socially adroit, every mathematician has to be able to give an effective but polite response to hearing “I was never good in math” in a social setting. There is no question that mathematics terrifies a large segment of the population, the mere mention sending them into a paralytic brain cramp. As the title suggests, the goal of the author is to reduce the level of anxiety among the people afraid of any mathematical activity beyond punching the buttons of a calculator.

I question whether Pask has been successful, for the simple reason that he occasionally gives the reader an honorable exit. For example, there is a section where the first sentence is “Warning: there is some mental torture in this section. Skip it if it hurts too much!”

For a book designed to ease tensions over math to contain such a phrase, even in jest, is abominable. The intended readership already believes that doing even the simplest math is an incredible mental strain. Comments like this reinforce the very attitude that the book is trying to reverse.

Other than the major errors of this type, the content is generally impressive, assuming of course that the reader has not already taken the honorable exit. Pask explains why symbols are so important in mathematics and why they provide power and generate confusion. One of the hurdles to learning mathematics is how compact the expression of ideas usually is and that is partly due to the use of symbols. Pask uses equations when they are essential, a positive point, for mathematics without equations is often just a bunch of words that never really harden to a point. 

Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, teaching college classes and co-editing The Journal of Recreational Mathematics. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.

The table of contents is not available.