Review: Humble Pi

I got this book after hearing the author (Matt Parker) a few times on various podcasts. Its perspective is captured in the subtitle: “when math goes wrong in the real world.”

The book is a page turner, moving crisply (and humorously*) from one disaster to another.

In most cases, problems arise from conversion errors (metric to imperial), mistakes in formulas (dividing by zero), disagreements on starting points (you’re “zero years old” until you’ve been alive 365 days?), misusing software (Excel is nota. database!), or things going on for longer than expected (the clock runs off a cliff). The resulting problems are sometimes funny but sometimes deadly.


This is a common theme in human progress. We make things beyond what we understand, as we always have done. Steam engines worked before we had a theory of thermodynamics; vaccines were developed before we knew how the immune system works; aircraft continue to fly to this day, despite the many gaps in our understanding of aerodynamics. When theory lags behind application, there will always be mathematical surprises lying in wait. The important thing is that we learn from these inevitable mistakes and don’t repeat them.

And then we can turn from making mistakes and learning from them to the situations where marketers are deceptive (“McDonalds: We have 6,000 meal combos!), where the “average person” doesn’t actually exist (just like the average height of a point between Mt Everest and sealevel is not 4424m high), where what we see now is not what was once there (survivor bias), or where scammers or attention seekers claim big significance in spurious correlations. For example:

If you love numbers and hate the people that abuse them, then read this book. FIVE STARS.

*This was in the end notes: “Charlie Turner fact-checked the crap out of the book and all remaining errors are hilarious jokes I’ve demanded be left in”

Here are all my reviews.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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