Supermath: The Power of Numbers for Good and Evil (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020) by A. Weltman is a good read, thoughtful, and clear. The book’s theme humanizes mathematicians, and links mathematics with real world challenges in art, society, politics, and economics. The book consists of stories of real people, their interaction with mathematics, and their contributions to a universal and growing understanding of mathematics. The sequence of math-related stories is designed to illustrate the ambiguities of mathematics used for benefits and harms. The emphasis is on people with weaknesses and strengths seeking understanding on behalf of all humanity.
The book title is misleading, since there is no theme of mathematics being a fantasy. There is no sign of how math is “super” math. There is no significance to the inverted 3 in the book title. The more accurate title might be “Mathematics: A practical tool used by humans for human benefit and human harm”.
Notably, the author argues that mathematics is not a universal language, either among all current human cultures or particularly useful in talking to aliens. The author makes a case for rejecting mathematics as a universal language by critiquing initial messages sent to outer space by humans through NASA. The author leaves vague an acknowledgement that the imperfect tool of mathematics does have a contributing role in any future alien communication.
The author’s preface to the book makes the important point that mathematics is about problem-solving (discernment) in the world. Problems are issues that we are uncertain how to address, but we give attention to them because they matter (i.e. Faith into practice).
The book is structured in five chapters to address the limited universalism of mathematics as a language, risk management, fairness, obstacles to practical entry into the math community, and real, but unclear and subjective, beauty of mathematics. The author argues that math beauty is tested against general criteria (familiar to people of the Quaker tradition) of abstraction (theology), significance (weight), unexpected surprise (continuing revelation), and intuition (discernment), all of which mathematicians value and which appear to them to be intrinsic parts of universal reality.
The book contains an index and a set of references within each chapter. These general chapter references are cryptic, intended to entice the reader rather than to inform. The table of contents is helpful to the reader’s understanding. The book contains some useful calculations, charts, and images. The cover illustration seems to confirm that numbers is the playing field of real, if somewhat uncertain, humans, not geniuses or superheroes.
This book is a useful resource for Quaker education of Quaker youth and a source for reflection for Quaker adults.
Quakers: There is no reference to Quakers or to religion in this book.
Why do Quakers have First Day School? It is the historic Quaker collective judgment to provide assistance to youth in navigating the world, bringing faith into practice and the application of experience, reason, and tradition in opportunities for adults to identify and nurture youth abilities, interests, and skills. This book opens the world of mathematics in an accessible way through readily understood stories and examples about real people (mathematicians). This is spiritual mathematics.
- What is the Quaker interest in Quaker vocations in mathematics?
- How do Quakers encourage Quaker youth to explore mathematics and science?
- How do Quaker First Day School curriculums embrace math and guide youth to understand its challenges and beauty?
Supermath: The Power of Numbers for Good and Evil, Anna Weltman (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020)