About

The following excerpt from the Preface should give you a good sense of what Math for Life is all about, and who it is for. If you’d like additional information, please see the Excerpts page or this author Q&A about the book.

Teachers: Please see the FAQ page to learn about using the book in the classroom.

The housing bubble. Lotteries. Cell phones and driving. Personal budgeting. The federal debt. Social Security. Tax reform. Energy policy. Global warming. Political redistricting. Population growth. Radiation from nuclear power plants.

What do all the above have in common? Each is a topic with important implications for all of us, but also a topic that we can fully understand only if we approach it with clear quantitative or mathematical thinking. In other words, these are all topics for which we need “math for life”—a kind of math that looks quite different from most of the math that we learn in school, but that is just as (and sometimes more) important.

Now, in case the word “math” has you worried for any reason, rest assured that this is not a math book in any traditional sense. You won’t find any complex equations in this book, nor will you see anything that looks much like what you might have studied in high school or college mathematics classes. Instead, the focus of this book will be on what is sometimes called quantitative reasoning, which means using numbers and other mathematically based ideas to reason our way through the kinds of problems that confront us in everyday life. As the list in the first paragraph should show, these problems range from the personal to the global, and over everything in between.

So what exactly will you learn about “math for life” in this short book? Perhaps the best way for me to explain it is to list my three major goals in writing this book:

1. On a personal level, I hope this book will prove practical in helping you make decisions that will improve your health, your happiness, and your financial future. To this end, I’ll discuss some general principles of quantitative reasoning that you may not have learned previously, while also covering specific examples that will include how to evaluate claims of health benefits that you may hear in the news (or in advertisements) and how to make financial decisions that will keep you in control of your own life.

2. On a societal level, I hope to draw attention to what I believe are oft-neglected mathematical truths that underlie many of the most important problems of our time. For example, I believe that far too few of us (and far too few politicians) understand the true magnitude of our current national budget predicament, the true challenge of meeting our future energy needs, or what it means to live in a world whose population may increase by another 3 billion people during the next few decades. I hope to show you how a little bit of quantitative reasoning can illuminate these and other issues, thereby making it more likely that we’ll find ways to bridge the political differences that have up until now stood in the way of real solutions.

3. On the level of educational policy, I hope that this book will have an impact on the way we think about mathematics education. As I’ll argue throughout the book, I believe that we can and must do a much better job both in teaching our children traditional mathematics—meaning the kind of mathematics that is necessary for modern, high-tech careers—and in teaching the mathematics of quantitative reasoning that we all need as citizens in today’s society. I’ll discuss both the problems that exist in our current educational system and the ways in which I believe we can solve them.

With those three major goals in mind, I’ll give you a brief overview of how I’ve structured the book. The first chapter focuses on the general impact of societal attitudes toward math. In particular, I’ll explain why I think the fact that so many people will without embarrassment say that they are “bad at math” was a major contributing factor to the housing bubble and the recent recession; I’ll also discuss the roots of poor attitudes toward math and how we can change those attitudes in the future. The second and third chapters provide general guidance for understanding the kinds of mathematical and statistical thinking that lie at the heart of many modern issues and that are in essence the core concepts of “math for life.” The remaining chapters are topic-based, covering all the issues I listed above, and more; note that, while I’d like to think you’ll read the book cover to cover, I’ve tried to make the individual chapters self-contained enough so that you could read them in any order. Finally, in the epilogue, I’ll offer my personal suggestions for changing the way we approach and teach mathematics.