Yesterday Kay got an automated phone call from Fed Ex saying that we should expect a package before 10:30 am today, which required a signature. We had no idea what it was. “Are you expecting a package?” she asked me.
Precisely at 10:26 the doorbell rang, and I signed for the package.
As soon as I saw that it was for me, and the label said that it came from China, I knew what it was.
There aren’t too many days in your life when you receive a shipment of books, still with a fresh-off-the-presses smell, and with your own name on the cover!
Okay, darn it, I need practice at this. My hands are covering up my name. But anyway, the book is The Universe in Zero Words, published by Princeton University Press. It hasn’t been officially released yet; the above is an advance copy. But you don’t have to wait for the official publication date (May 2012) if you want to order it.
The Universe in Zero Words is a history of 24 great equations of mathematics and science, from the Pythagorean Theorem to the Black-Scholes Formula, with many entertaining stops in between. It is intended to demystify equations for people who have always been puzzled or intimidated by them, and celebrate equations for those who like them.
When I was taking classes on science journalism, one of my teachers told me that popular science writers never put equations in their articles. “For every equation in your article, you will lose half your readers,” he said. So if you put, say, nine or ten equations in your article, it’s easy to figure out how many readers you’ll have left!
Generally speaking, I have followed this rule in my writing (although I enjoy breaking it from time to time). But as a writer about mathematics, it has always bothered me. Chess players can relate to this very well. How can you really describe the beauty of chess if you aren’t allowed to use chess notation or diagrams? In mathematics, equations might not be the whole point, but they are a pretty big piece of the point. So about three and a half years ago, I decided to write a book that would not hide the equations behind a veil of secrecy and obfuscation, but instead would display them proudly for all the world to see.
The result is The Universe in Zero Words. I hope that some of you will want to read it — and if you like it, please tell your friends! I’d really like it to reach readers who didn’t quite get the point of equations the first time around.