How to Bake Pi is a one-of-a-kind book about the mathematics of mathematics in which each chapter begins with a familiar recipe. It’s illuminating and fun for both the math-anxious and the curious. It is the perfect book for a home educator to read together (or read for) her students.
The author, Eugenia Cheng, is a math category theorist (and musician and writer and cook!). Her goal in this book is to first illustrate some of the useful tools of math, but then to have the reader understand the common thread of relationships, languages, shapes, and ideas to which math can play host. The recipes featured help her reveal the general principle in each chapter. Mercifully and skillfully, she refers back to components of the recipe to make sure she hasn’t lost her reader as she marches forward with her brave analogies.
My 16-year-old son read this book with me. I asked him why he liked it. He is passionate about classical music, so his response was: Every single day I think about what it is that holds complicated music together. Category theory can tell me the answer to this because it’s what holds mathematics together. This book brought me even closer to the music I love.
My favorite thing about this book? The word axiomatization — I can’t wait to use it. It is the reduction of some complex system to a simpler set of rules. Who cares, you say? I do and maybe you should too. Think about any huge problem you have in your life — something complicated with dozens of ramifications. Make a list of the good and the bad. Axioms will materialize from this exercise — themes and commonalities between the good and bad things on your list — and these will both illuminate and provide direction. As Cheng says in her book: “…it’s really more intelligent to be able to simplify things than to complicate them. Even if some people think it makes you look stupid.” When you think about it, isn’t that what homeschool parents do? Boil things down to their simplest forms, and then just get the job done, right?
Cheng makes the ideas in math accessible, focusing on logic and beauty and simplicity, and she delivers the info (mostly) from her kitchen counter. Ingredients + a method = a recipe! Recipes are a proxy for the ideas of math. This was such a fun premise for a greater appreciation of math — for me and for many others who wonder why but who do not dig too deep into that why, because we are afraid to strain the limits of our comprehension. On this concern, Cheng says:
“Instead of being afraid of that darkness, we should bring everyone to the edge of it and say: Look! Here is an area that needs illumination Bring fire, torches, candles — anything you can think of that will cast light. Then we can lay down our foundations and build our great buildings, cure diseases, invent fabulous new machines, and whatever else we think the human race should be doing. But first of all we need some light.”
And while searching for and shining light on complex problems, remember to focus on the simplest pieces of that problem. One at a time.
Two thumbs ups for How to Bake Pi