The Mathematics of Life

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Release Date: 
January 7, 2013
Basic Books
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“It is a rare author who can translate complex concepts into concrete and understandable portions for any reader to understand; yet this is exactly what Ian Mr. Stewart does in The Mathematics of Life.”

It is a rare author who can translate complex concepts into concrete and understandable portions for any reader to understand; yet this is exactly what Ian Mr. Stewart does in The Mathematics of Life.

Basic principles of a startling range of scientific fields are explained with stimulating mathematical descriptions and interesting historical contexts. Although this may sound somewhat dry, The Mathematics of Life is written with perfect tone that will keep the reader engaged.

Mr. Stewart introduces his six scientific revolutions that have brought the field of biology into the modern age. Although historically biology has been a field that relies on the observation of specimens, these revolutions have dramatically changed biology into an experimental and highly mathematical field:

1) Invention of the microscope
2) A systematic means of classifying species
3) Evidence of evolution
4) Expansion of the field of genetics
5) Discovery of the structure of DNA
6) Mathematics

With our growing understanding of the mechanisms involved in cellular and whole-organism biology, it has become increasingly possible to determine why these things happen, rather than simply recording them and trying to infer an explanation. For example, experiments that determine the function of a gene can easily be conducted using fruit flies, something that would have been impossible if the most basic principles of genetics were not understood. Sophisticated mathematical and statistical techniques are being developed to answer questions specific to biology, driving an exciting era marked by the synergy of these two fields.

It is precisely these essential revolutions that author Stewart covers with astonishing breadth and precision. The importance of mathematics in many disciplines is covered, including the basics of genetics, DNA structure and replication, molecular biology, taxonomy, game theory, evolution, neurobiology, virology, population dynamics, and topology (or, knot theory), among many others.

Readers newer to the nuts and bolts of biologic systems will appreciate Mr. Stewart’s easy explanations, and readers with a scientific background will be impressed by the level of scholarship contained in the book. Historical trivia and interesting facts also hold the reader’s interest. For example, Mr. Stewart discusses the pattern of spirals on pineapples and the heads of sunflowers in mathematical terms. Other interesting examples drawn from nature are covered.

In later chapters, Mr. Stewart deals with larger questions such as the meaning of life and whether extraterrestrial life is likely to exist on other planets. Mr. Stewart presents several criteria that are common to life forms:

1) It has an organized structure
2) It can change its behavior based on environmental stimuli
3) Energy can be used from the environment to maintain organization and react to the environment
4) It can respond to external stimuli
5) It can grow, with proportionate increases in the energy taken in and utilized
6) It can reproduce
7) It can adapt to longer-term alterations present in its environment

Overall, the reader will not be disappointed, no matter what he or she is looking for in this book: well researched and well written, The Mathematics of Life is an informative, compelling narrative of precisely the mathematics of life. It is likely that the reader will finish this survey of the sciences and end the book intellectually satisfied.