Let me tell you a little something about how the book-criticism business works. I don’t pay for the books I review. Sometimes, publishers send me a copy unsolicited, but most of the time I request a review copy directly from the publisher. There’s no set system for how I choose the books I’m going to review, either. If a new book receives a good deal of attention prior to its release, if it seems like it might hold some particular appeal for college students or Philadelphians, if its author is somebody significant – then I make a request.
Such requests account for about half of the books I review – the others are chosen simply because something about them seemed interesting.
Group Theory in the Bedroom, and Other Mathematical Diversions, a new collection from essayist Brian Hayes, falls squarely into the latter category. I didn’t have any idea who Hayes was when I requested his book, I didn’t have any idea what it would be about, and I didn’t have any idea of what sort of person it might appeal to. All I knew was that Group Theory sounded like a pretty lurid title for a collection of essays about math. Titles, actually, are one thing Hayes does particularly well – one of many things he does well, really.
I’ve now read Group Theory, and can assure you that there is nothing lurid whatsoever about the title essay, that there is nothing particularly lurid, indeed, about the whole book. But I can also assure you that it is quite worth reading. But I can tell this is not going to be an easy sell.
Think for a second about Freakonomics, the unlikely bestseller by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt. Dubner and Levitt’s book doesn’t exactly sound like the sequel to The Da Vinci Code. It pretty much consists of essays in which the principles of microeconomics are applied to situations beyond the range of normal economic analyses. It sounds, in short, pretty boring – yet I have no doubt that if you haven’t read Freakonomics yet, there’s an excellent chance that you know somebody who has. The book, despite all odds, has seemingly been read by everybody.
So think about Group Theory as a more challenging – but as a result, more rewarding – book in the style of Freakonomics (unless you’re a math major, in which case my telling you that it is quite simply the best collection of essays on complicated mathematics that I’ve ever read might just be enough to get you hooked right off the bat). Hayes considers a myriad of extremely interesting topics (What would our world be like without randomness? Can an algorithm explain the causes of war? How do scientists think? And just how should one go about rotating one’s mattress?), and does it in a writing style that even I, with very little mathematical training, found engaging and accessible.
Hayes is that rare combination: a man comfortable in both the scientific world of mathematics and the uncertain terrain of language. His facility with numbers is equaled – possibly even excelled – only by his talent for thinking and writing about interesting ideas in interesting ways. Unlike Freakonomics, Group Theory focuses more on the process of discovery than its conclusion, allowing Hayes to meditate at length on the idea of math and science as exploration.
Group Theory in the Bedroom is not for everybody, and I am well aware that no amount of argument on my part will convince some readers to pick up a collection of essays about math. But for any others who may have been even slightly swayed by my opinion, I strongly encourage giving Brian Hayes a chance – rarely is one given the opportunity to enjoy learning quite so much as when reading his work.
Peter Chomko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.