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Issue Date: September 21, 2003

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News & Views

The numbers game: Why math books are hot

Arithmetic long has been considered a subject of study reserved for the classroom. But now math books meant for pleasure reading are adding up to a trend. A slew of books unraveling the number-powered intricacies of life, both cosmic and mundane, are following up on math-oriented movies like "A Beautiful Mind" and "Good Will Hunting" and best sellers like "The Da Vinci Code". W.W. Norton & Co. has several, including a re-release of "The Elegant Universe", Brian Greene's primer on superstring theory (the "theory of everything"), to coincide with a three-part PBS series on the topic next month.

Why the high interest in higher math? "We're feeling comfortable with a subject that used to be disconnected from reality," says Norton senior editor Angela von der Lippe. "There's an incredible appeal to math because it explains the mysterious."

Another reason: People are simply becoming more sophisticated, says mathematician Paul Nahin, who'll explore math's many everyday applications in a book to be published next year. "We live in a high-tech world where [we're] surrounded by computers," he says. "Even people who aren't into math can appreciate how it makes the world go around." It also appeals to those who desire the illusion of understanding complicated topics. New math-centric books cater to a desire to better understand abstractions, such as how to make a perfect basketball shot -- a whimsy to be explored in Nahin's book.

Interest in unsolved math mysteries also is high, piqued by the promise of riches and fame. A decade ago, Andrew Wiles announced he had solved a problem set out by Pierre de Fermat (Fermat's Last Theorem) in 1637. "That seemed to be the beginning of math in the news," says Vickie Kearn at Princeton University Press. "It was like beating Babe Ruth's record." Now the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, Mass., is offering $1 million for the solution to each of seven classic math mysteries that have resisted solution over the centuries, such as the Riemann Hypothesis, outlined in an 1859 paper by German mathematician G.F.B. Riemann.

"There are lots of rumblings [it] will be solved soon," Kearn says. "Probably, no one is going to solve it by reading one of these new math books, but it's very intriguing."

Contributing: Jane Boursaw, Tameka L. Hicks


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