Stefan Buijsman

Pluses and Minuses

Mathematics and the world around us

How mathematics allows us to better understand the world

Whether we know it or not, the omnipresent technologies in our daily lives are all based on mathematics. Be it traffic lights, Google’s search engine, movie suggestions on Netflix, the espresso machine at your local cafe or the cruise control in your car — they all function using the mathematics we’re taught at school.

If we consider that the Mesopotamians were the first to use numbers when counting supplies with clay tokens, how did something that began so practical turn into something we now often think of as frighteningly abstract? More importantly, in a world becoming increasingly complex, why is understanding the basics more important than ever?

Pluses and Minuses is a book for those who are scared of mathematics. In it, Stefan Buijsman, a 21-year-old philosopher of mathematics, demystifies the world of numbers, offering a concise and delightfully readable history and demonstrating its close connection with the necessities of our daily lives.

By identifying simple structures in an otherwise overwhelming complexity, mathematics has helped us make sense of the world for thousands of years. Starting with maths’ humble origins in Mesopotamia, Stefan then examines how the Egyptians used numbers for city administration, how the Greeks invented geometry and the Chinese were calculating calendars in 1000 BC. He paints the 17th-century public controversy between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz over who first invented the integral, which, along with differential equations, remains an essential building block of modern life. He sketches the mathematical discoveries that radically changed the world, as well as their some- times unlikely inspirations. We learn how probability and statistics help us manage uncertainty, how graph theory now underlies everything from Facebook being able to predict your future friendships to gauging the effectiveness of cancer treatments in hospitals.

Buijsman also identifies some of mathematics’ shortcomings, and its abuses. In doing so, he makes a passionate case for understanding its most simple concepts as a means of arming ourselves. Bombarded with statistics and polls, we can better gauge their merit if we know how they have been calculated. We can make informed decisions on questions like artificial intelligence and on-line privacy, and understand how fake news and social media work. Like maths, Buijsman provides us the tools to simplify these daunting subjects, allowing us to better understand our world.

Stefan Buijsman is 21 years old and does everything a bit quicker than the rest of us. At 15 he went to university, and at 18 he left for Sweden with his master’s degree. He finished his Ph.D. when he was just 20. Stefan is 21 and so smart that we’re almost speechless.

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Stefan Buijsman

Stefan Buijsman (b. 1995) graduated with a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Leiden at 18 years of age, after which he left for Sweden to pursue a Ph.D. He completed the four-year doctorate program within a year and a half, making him one of the youngest Ph.D.s ever. At…

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Plussen en minnen. Wiskunde en de wereld om ons heen (2018). Non-fiction, 208 pages.

English sample available

Themes: mathematics


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