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Book review: ‘The Ten Equations that Rule the World’ by David Sumpter

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Understanding the mathematics that govern our daily lives, and how you can use it to your advantage.

There’s something irresistible in the idea that everything that seems vague, random and unpredictable in our lives can be explained with mathematics. That there’s an equation tucked away in some seldom-visited corner of academia able to provide answers to apparently unanswerable questions won’t come as much of a surprise.

The fact that there’s a mathematician who is sufficiently patient to unravel it all before your eyes is something of a revelation. If you’ve ever wondered if there could be some sort of co-ordinated set of parameters to determine how far into a Netflix box set you should descend before bowing to the inevitable, David Sumpter has the answer.

If it ever crossed your mind that there might be an optimal period of time kids should spend on social media, our professor of applied mathematics at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, has the formula. If you ever thought there was a more scientific approach to consumer choice (such as deciding which headphones to buy) than tossing a coin, then ‘The Ten Equations that Rule the World and How You Can Use Them Too’ (Allen Lane, £20, ISBN 9780241404546) is here to help.

‘Help’ might be the wrong word because, while having the external appearance of an airport bookshop business ‘self-help’ manual, Sumpter’s latest, beneath its easy-going style, is in fact a serious set of extended essays on how the seemingly random (and often trivial) aspects of our lives are just as subject to the rules of maths as things we are more likely to assume are, such as chess, music and bridges.

While hugely entertaining, erudite and at times genuinely witty, ‘The Ten Equations that Rule the World’ will present a slight problem to the lay reader. Despite the implied promise of the book’s half-title – ‘and how you can use them too’ – the non-mathematician will struggle to apply these hieroglyph-like equations to their daily lives because, let’s face it, very few of us are as adept at this level of mathematics as the author. But, the fact that Sumpter overestimates both the ability and inclination of the general reader to roll up their sleeves and get stuck into the sums should be taken as a compliment, if only because it’s nice to be spoken to in grown-up language by a genius.

More than that, it is a mathematical certainty (probably) that you will come away from Sumpter’s book with a much clearer idea of why the world is less messy than it appears, if not exactly how this can be expressed (or even understood) with chalk and blackboard. And if you’re one of the few mavericks that has not consecrated their life to association football, it is quite reassuring to know that, provided you’ve got a couple of decades to spare, you can win a fortune by betting on it without ever having to watch a single game.

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