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Customer Reviews

3.6 out of 5 stars8
3.6 out of 5 stars
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on 2 May 2011
I am a great fan of Ian Stewart, and an avid reader of 'popular science' novels such as this one. However, I think Ian has made a mistake with his audience on this one. He is a mathematician, not a biologist, and as such he describes simple A-level biological phenomenon as if it was all new, excitingand in great depth. Then rushes onto the mathematics that just leave you stumped wanting more explanation. The first half of the book is a boring re-hash of biology text-books. Written (it seems) to bring the knowledge of his reader up to a fundamental level of understanding in order to pile the mathematics on top, later in the book. As a biologist I was left bored churning through the first bit and then a bit lost in places on the second bit (Seriously multi-dimensional mathematics gets about half a chapter, and no nuts and bolts explanation as with the biology, I would of much preferred half a book on this!). If your a mathematician that has never looked at life sciences, then you will probably enjoy it. If your a life scientist looking for a mathematicians take on your subject, then that is basically what you get, but be prepared to read around some of the concepts elsewhere as they are not included in sufficient clarity within the book. Despite this, Ian is an engrossing and enjoyable author and usually his books are a triumph of learining and reasoning. Maybe I am too close to one of the subjects to appreciatte it, but I was disapointed with this title.
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on 6 June 2011
As usual with Stewart the book is well written and relevant to his subject. Perhaps because he can not assume knowledge of sufficient biological background there seems to be a greater proportion of non-mathematical exposition than in most of his other books.

There is a problem which Stewart shares with other prolific writers and that is the limit to the amount of material which is available to a popularising author. The overlap between 'Mathematics of Life' and his earlier book 'Life's Other Secret' (1998) is quite extensive. I'm sure it has been re-written and updated but anyone led from this book to the earlier one would find it repetitious.
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on 4 October 2011
Prof. Ian Stewart FRS is clever and well-regarded. For a long time, his book on Galois theory was on my to-read list. This book was a major disappointment. It started off, in prospect, as a possible five stars, but it rapidly slid down to two.

What are the problems? Too many to list, but here are some.

First, there is actually precious little mathematics here, esp. in the first hundred pages or so. Then the text is littered with statements that were almost literally painful to read. At one point, he observes that the number of bits required to encode the human genome is approximately the same as the capacity of a CD - thus 'we are roughly as complex as Seargent Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band'. This is a _completely_ content free remark, for reasons that I am sure Prof. Stewart is aware of, when he is making any effort at all. He implies that we didn't 'really' know that a reef-knot cannot be untied, until topologists managed to prove it in this century. This is a serious confusion of models and reality. It is more accurate to say that we have known, _with absolute certainty_ that you cannot untie a reef-knot with fixed ends, we juat haven't bothered to shoe-horn that knowledge into the language of algebraic topology. Presumably we didn't know until this century either (because mathematics tells us that you can) that you could take a sphere the size of a football apart, and put it together as a sphere the size of the sun? This chapter ends up in a discussion of protein structure that I expected to build to some interesting mathematical theory for solving the protein folding problem (more a statistial physics problem than a mathematics problem, per se, I would have thought), but that ends up by saying nothing more than that there is surely some metric under which there is a continuously descending path in the potential space for a protein, because otherwise it wouldn't reliably fold (you don't say) but we don't know what that metric looks like - in the meantime some people have made the problem into a video game, and it turns out that there are people who are good at solving the problem. Cool! (I don't really think so, more sunday supplement cute, actually. What has that got to do with mathematics, or science, really?

He has a discussion of the structure of viruses that tells us (and not a lot of people know this) that some viruses have a structure that is found in 3d cross-sections of 4d lattices - I expected him at this point to provide a causal explanation of why this might be so, but the chapter just stops at this point.

There are various remarks about data analytics (e.g. clustering, classification tree construction) that avoid all concrete detail and look to be just plain misleading about computational complexity.

I could go on(really? you ask), but this review is already too long.

In 1968, J. Maynard Smith published a perfect little classic of a book, 'Mathematical Ideas in Biology' (CUP, 130pp in my copy). It is long out of print, but surely easy to track down. Stewart isn't in competition.
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on 29 August 2013
Skips over maths and dwells in obvious biology far too long excessive scope has lead to a much less useful book Han it might have been
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on 10 May 2011
A well written, slightly popular, very interesting account that connects several aspects of modern science work. This is an excellent book and it is not hard to read. Highly recommended.
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on 9 October 2011
If there were more books like this then people might start to learn a sense of shame when they state "I cannt do maths" and pretend to be proud of their stupidity.

Not 5 stars because the author has to ensure that he stands on rock and not on this sand of ignorance. However, despite what others have said, he gives plenty of indications where to go to beef up ones lack of knowledge.

But it does one thing exceptionally well - it makes one aware of the awe available in mathematics as it becomes a heavy weight tool in Biology. An excellent and well put together book - if only his audience were more numerate!
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on 19 March 2013
If you want to understand the music of the spheres, then let this man guide you. Bach, Milton and Newton explained. An intellectual orgasm. Also read the latest edition of T.A. Today. All of you who do will be helping to heal our world. Go in peace.
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on 3 August 2013
If you like maths and aren't a mathematician or a calculus buff then you will like this.

What more can I say... it's an Ian Stewart book, buy it!
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