Mathematics as a subject is distinctive in its symbolic abstraction and its potential for logical and computational rigor. But mathematicians tend to impute other qualities to our subject that set it apart, such as impartiality, universality, and elegance. Far from incidental, these ideas prime mathematicians and the public to see in mathematics the answers—for example, an impartial arbiter, or a meritocratic equalizer—to many urgent societal questions. Anna Weltman's new book, Supermath: The Power of Numbers for Good and Evil (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), surveys a number of ways this conception of mathematics has informed scientific undertakings and public policies, not to mention our everyday behaviors, and makes a powerful case for reevaluating its assumptions.
The book's five chapters contain stories of mathematical exploits from ancient to ongoing and across the spectrum from pure to applied. Many may be familiar, for example active research and journalism into the use and misuse of predictive algorithms or G. H. Hardy's enumeration of the elements of mathematical beauty. Others, including continuing work to interpret Incan documents that survived European colonial erasure and the epidemiological insights obtained from massively multiplayer online gaming, will be new even to many mathematical readers. What they share is the essential but often ignored interplay between theory and culture that makes mathematics a thoroughly human activity. Weltman's book can be read as a call for scholars, educators, and communicators of mathematics to grapple with the power our training and credentialing in mathematics grants us, and to understand that its most basic promise of solving problems is not automatic but one that we must realize.
Anna Weltman is a math teacher and writer who earned her PhD in mathematics education from the University of California at Berkeley. She is also the author of This Is Not a Math Book and This Is Not Another Math Book.
Cory Brunson (he/him) is a Research Assistant Professor at the Laboratory for Systems Medicine at the University of Florida.
Cory Brunson is a Research Assistant Professor at the Laboratory for Systems Medicine at the University of Florida. His research focuses on geometric and topological approaches to the analysis of medical and healthcare data. He welcomes book suggestions, listener feedback, and transparent supply chains.