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Equations in reality

A book has been translated into Italian that narrates the progress of humanity through a series of mathematical equations that explain the reality that surrounds us

Business is also about calculations. Sometimes – almost always – there is a certain dose of risk (which is also often calculated). But that’s not all, because every good entrepreneur (and manager) constantly has to get as precise an idea as possible of what surrounds him, of the path he is undertaking, has to predict what will happen as a consequence of his actions and those of others. Therefore a conscious calculation, which is sometimes also unaware. But it is still a calculation. One that is also used to obtain the appropriate knowledge tools. Also by reading books which are apparently far removed from a businessman’s way of seeing things. This is the case of “Le 17 equazioni che hanno cambiato il mondo” (the 17 equations which have changed the world) written by Ian Stewart.

A rich and fascinating book written by Stewart (fellow of the Royal Society and Professor Emeritus of mathematics at Warwick University), which is in fact the story of human progress told through equations (17 in fact), which have contributed towards making the world what it is today. A way of seeing what surrounds us with a different set of spectacles, an unusual, beautiful and useful one; a set which businessmen (and all things considered all shrewd people) should wear once in a while.

Equations – the author explains – are the life blood of mathematics, of science and technology; in their absence the world as we know it would not exist. They may cause fear or appear enigmatic, but one thing is for certain: they cannot be ignored.  For this reason, everyone should in some way know them more than they are known in reality today. This is because every equation has a strong bond with reality, with the world that surrounds us; and which in fact also surrounds every human enterprise, every factory, every conquest, every project.

Stewart – who is accustomed to writing to be understood -, therefore addresses a difficult topic lightly yet with great accuracy and clarity. Starting with Pythagoras’ theorem, touching on the equations proper of the theories of quantum physics. Newton’s law of universal gravitation, the second law of thermodynamics, relativity, the strange world of quantum effects in the Schrödinger equation, the chaos theory, the formula for the price trend of derivatives on the financial market: these are some of the chapters in a book that is not a brief one (the volume spans over 400 pages), but one which is definitely important to read and re-read. One that is read relatively easily taking into consideration the objective difficulty of the topic. One thing that simplifies comprehension is the method with which the author begins each chapter: a presentation of the equation with an indication of what each individual symbol used means, an explanation of the meaning of the entire equation and the reasons for its importance as well as the usefulness of the equation itself.

So a different and unusual set of spectacles, better to read a complex reality, which is constantly changing but which can be better understood with a method that stays the same at all times.  Stewart’s literary undertaking should be rewarded by careful reading and re-reading.

Le 17 equazioni che hanno cambiato il mondo (The 17 equations that have changed the world)

Ian Stewart

Einaudi, 2017