Infinite Powers to explain

This post continues a series of post were I provide my thoughts on books that I deem worth reading.

This time it is the Infinite Powers book by Steven Strogatz that takes the reader into a realm of taming infinity to grasp nature’s secrets. The title of the book ambiguously plays on a method of using power series to approximate curves and powers which such a method, when exercised skillfully, brought to humankind. The book artfully describes how deferential and integral calculus was developed from Archimedes efforts to measure quadrature of curves through Descartes and Fermat, culminating in calculus invented by Isaac Newton in England and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in Germany working independently. Lots of examples are provided showing how calculus is essential in many of inventions that are an important part of the modern civilization, be it GPS navigation, microwave ovens or the development of effective treatments to viruses induced diseases.

The power of insight

What I liked about the book is how the author is capable of explaining mathematical concepts, that usually require a solid mathematical background, mostly using analogies and down to earth explanations. Though, what I also liked that a mathematically inclined readers were not ignored, since what could, possibly, explained using proper mathematical notation was described as such. It is difficult to appreciate the beauty of calculus without using the mathematical symbols standing for derivative (differentials) and integral, that are so familiar to many people. I should say any person who studied at school should be familiar with them, and if not, the book provides a gentle and very intuitive explanation of what derivative stands for and why it is required, the same goes for integral.

As an example of a good explanation, I want to emphasize a Pizza Proof that is used to find an area of a circle. Since I recalled the formula for it being A = pi * R2, it was very interesting to see how the Pizza Proof showed clearly that A = R*C/2, where R is a radius of a circle and C its length. I think since school time I was curious where the power of two came in the area formula that I remembered. So, using the Pizza Proof result and substituting the C in it with the known formula for the length of the circle which is C = pi * 2R (which derivation was also explained in the book ) we get A = pi * R2. It was a nice insight, first one of many that the book provided.

I also liked how the method used by Fermat to find the maximum value of a curve, using a smart approach of double intersection, provides a correct result similar to what using derivatives would give. Another example, that was also insightful showed how the concept of derivative and curve interpolation could be used to find patterns in the seasonal changes of day length compared to the rate of change of day length, which both could be approximated by a sinusoidal function with a quarter cycle shift (pi/4 phase shift).

One can’t explain math without using it

Importantly, the concept of derivative was developed and shown very clearly using proper mathematical notation which should be clear even to readers coming from non-mathematical background, since the explanations gradually and systematically build up from simple to more advanced, as a reader progresses through the book (which means that the book should be read continuously). Then the concept of integral is shown quite remarkably well and the two concepts combined to showcase the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus about the duality of derivatives and integrals.

As I always mention, this book passes the test of providing references to other resources on the subject, like original papers of Newton or The Archimedes Palimpsest, which I was unaware of before reading the book.

Summary

It could be that reading Infinite Powers would provide your with appreciation of how calculus is essential in our day to day life and understanding of the world around us. And, maybe, show why mathematics could be beautiful in its own way and also applicable and useful, which could be an unexpected revelation to some.

Other resources

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