by ian stewart
published by profile books in 2011
What is this book about?
‘Mathematics of Life’ by Ian Stewart was a book that inspired to relate what I love about maths to what I love about biology. It studies the links between maths and biology which form the emerging discipline of mathematical biology, concluding that mathematics is the sixth revolution of life, following the microscope, classification, evolution, genetics and the structure of DNA. This was a grand proclamation to make, but Stewart justified it in his thorough exploration of the application of maths to biology. From the golden ratio to the human genome project, mathematics underlies the processes used in biology and the phenomenon of the natural world. By using probability, topology and mathematical models, biologists are now able to simplify real life problems to open a door to enlightenment.
Area of Interest for Further Research
Using multiple dimensions to unravel viruses
In mathematics, a dimension can be defined as the number of independent coordinates needed to specify the things that belong to it. Therefore, we are able to look not only at space with three dimensions, but at space with four dimensions or maybe even more. In this way, familiar objects can be considered in space of multiple dimensions, and as a result are often made simpler to understand. Viruses are very little understood, and part of this is their complex shape. The majority of viruses are icosahedral (20 sided shape) or helical, with the main form observed being the incredible icosahedron. An icosahedron is one of the platonic solids, constructed of regular equilateral triangles, consequently it has 120 symmetries. This is very hard for us to imagine, but by applying mathematical rules we are able to consider the icosahedron in multiple dimensions. By taking the points in space which form an icosahedron, it becomes clearer how it is constructed. In this way, we can understand how viruses are constructed: the first step in learning how to destroy them.
This is something that amazes me. Even abstract maths can be combined with abstract biology to create an idea which can realistically revolutionise health care.
How good was this book?
I thought this book was wonderful. Stewart uses approachable language to bring across fantastic ideas. His clever structure enables the reader to pick through the areas of most interest, and he ha covered a vast array of topics, giving a taste of the mathematics of life. He even covered controversial topics, including the question of ‘what is life?’ and whether aliens may exist. At points, biology and mathematics seemed to diverge and it was possible to question how relevant the subjects were to each other within a particular topic, however, this was always reconciled at the end of the chapter when Stewart concluded by drawing together the different points he had made. The radical assertion of mathematics’ importance in biology is something that many mathematicians and biologists would disagree on. However, it is an idea that I fully agree with.
Who would I advise this book to?
This book would be brilliant for anybody studying both maths and biology at A level, and wondering how these two subjects impact each other. The initial chapters of this book unintentionally cover much of the AS level biology specification with fantastic clarity, whilst providing additional and fascinating background knowledge.