How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics by Eugenia Cheng
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
While most of the book is material I’ve known for a long time, it’s very well structured and presented in a clean and clear manner. Though a small portion is about category theory and gives some of the “flavor” of the subject, the majority is about how abstract mathematics works in general.
I’d recommend this to anyone who wants to have a clear picture of what mathematics really is or how it should be properly thought about and practiced (hint: it’s not the pablum you memorized in high school or even in calculus or linear algebra). Many books talk about the beauty of math, while this one actually makes steps towards actually showing the reader how to appreciate that beauty.
Like many popular books about math, this one actually has very little that goes beyond the 5th grade level, but in examples that are very helpfully illuminating given their elementary nature. The extended food metaphors and recipes throughout the book fit in wonderfully with the abstract nature of math – perhaps this is why I love cooking so much myself.
I wish I’d read this book in high school to have a better picture of the forest of mathematics.
It just came out in the U.S. market on May 5, 2015, so it’s very new in the market. My guess is that even those who aren’t intimidated will get a lot out of it as well. A brief description of the book follows:
“What is math? How exactly does it work? And what do three siblings trying to share a cake have to do with it? In How to Bake Pi, math professor Eugenia Cheng provides an accessible introduction to the logic and beauty of mathematics, powered, unexpectedly, by insights from the kitchen: we learn, for example, how the béchamel in a lasagna can be a lot like the number 5, and why making a good custard proves that math is easy but life is hard. Of course, it’s not all cooking; we’ll also run the New York and Chicago marathons, pay visits to Cinderella and Lewis Carroll, and even get to the bottom of a tomato’s identity as a vegetable. This is not the math of our high school classes: mathematics, Cheng shows us, is less about numbers and formulas and more about how we know, believe, and understand anything, including whether our brother took too much cake.
At the heart of How to Bake Pi is Cheng’s work on category theory—a cutting-edge “mathematics of mathematics.” Cheng combines her theory work with her enthusiasm for cooking both to shed new light on the fundamentals of mathematics and to give readers a tour of a vast territory no popular book on math has explored before. Lively, funny, and clear, How to Bake Pi will dazzle the initiated while amusing and enlightening even the most hardened math-phobe.”
Dr. Cheng recently appeared on NPR’s Science Friday with Ira Flatow to discuss her book. You can listen to the interview below. Most of the interview is about her new book. Specific discussion of category theory begins about 14 minutes into the conversation.