Mathletics by John D Barrow

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Mathletics by John D Barrow

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Category: Sport
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robert James
Reviewed by Robert James
Summary: Hit and miss collection of pieces could have been improved by losing half of them and doubling the length of the rest. Some interesting bits, though, possibly worht borrowing.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? No
Pages: 320 Date: June 2013
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099584230

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As a sports fan and a maths teacher, I was thrilled to get the chance to read a book which claims to give us surprising and enlightening insights into the world of sports. This is rather a frustrating read because it seems to have got the balance wrong in many cases. There are some chapters which are so short as to be barely worth reading – one merely points out that while humans can’t run as fast as cheetahs or perform gymnastics as amazing as that of a monkey, we’re better all-rounders than any other animal. This is true, but hardly seems worth wasting a page on, it’s so obvious. Then there are other chapters, like the interesting one detailing the points scoring system in the decathlon, which are good but could have been much better given more space. The decathlon one is a prime example of this – it’s five pages, so one of the book’s longer sections, but could surely have been excellent if it had gone into more detail. I can’t help thinking that dropping half of the sections and doubling the other half in length might have been the way to go here.

The other slight issue is that I’m not quite sure who the target audience is. The back claims that it’s suitable for competitors, armchair enthusiasts and maths lovers alike, but I think you have to be in the third group to show much of an understanding of things like eigenvectors when they pop up. Admittedly plenty of other chapters can be understood without the need for higher level maths, though.

In addition, there’s at least one statement that’s either misleading or just plain wrong. In a chapter about goal difference in football the book states that use of goals scored as a tie-breaker to separate teams level on points and goal difference was not adopted by the Premier League in 1992. I’m reasonably sure that goals scored has always been used in this scenario in the Premier League; it certainly is now, as stated on the league’s own website. I don’t know enough of some of the other sports involved to be able to know if there are any other mistakes but the presence of a fairly obvious one here didn’t inspire me with confidence at the book’s accuracy.

The presence of some interesting pieces means that it's probably worth giving this a look if you're really interested in the mathematics behind sports, but I'd say it's one to borrow rather than to buy.

100 Essential Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know by John D Barrow did a rather better job of bringing mathematics to the casual reader, according to fellow Bookbag reviewer Magda. My own personal favourite maths book of the last few years is probably The Joy of X by Steven Strogatz.

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