Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Square Root of Two

I partially compensate for being underpaid by taking full advantage of the University's fantastic library. As I was cleaning my desk a few weeks back, I saw a scrap of paper that I must have ripped out of the Springer catalog with an ad for The Square Root of Two by David Flannery. As one of the topics in the gen-ed course that I supervise is "the square root of two is not rational," this seemed like a book worth checking out -- but probably not worth spending money on.

Since the math librarian does not have a technical background and is also the biology librarian, our math collection is somewhat hit-or-miss, and we don't have this book in our collection. So I ILLed it, and it arrived from Wake Forest University. When I went to circulation to pick it up, I got to deal with a library employee with customer service issues.

Me: I got an email that my inter-library loan book arrived. Where do I pick it up?
Him: Are you sure that it arrived?
Me: That's what the email said.
Him: When did you get the email?
Me: Friday.
Him: Give me your ID.

He takes my ID and looks at a shelf of books, confusedly.

Him: Did you get married recently?

The best reason that he could think of for not finding my book was the possibility that I had changed my name in the few days since placing an inter-library loan request? OK, it probably doesn't help that my last name is misspelled on my ID, but it's one of the letters in the middle of the name (the 'e' was turned into a 'c'), and you probably wouldn't notice it if I didn't tell you.

Before I can formulate a snarky comment about having gotten married in 1998 but never having changed my name, he finds my book, slightly mis-shelved, and has me sign for it.

All that effort for a book with hardly any content in it!

It's written in a VERY ANNOYING style as a dialog between a "master" and a "student," both of whom are annoying and who lack any sense of voice. On the off-chance this book is read by someone who is not already mathematically-oriented, it could easily give the impression that mathematicians are pompous and condescending (and did I mention annoying?). What content that there is would have made for a pleasant article (or series of articles) in a magazine whose audience includes math undergrads (written in a less annoying style, of course). I have no idea how he filled an entire book. Probably the only reason that he got the book deal was because of his daughter's popular book (that people have stopped asking me about FINALLY).

OK, I'll give it all away.
  • The square root of two can be approximated by fractions in the rather pleasing sequence: 1, 3/2, 7/5, 17/12, 41/29, 99/70 ...
  • The square root of two has a nice continued fraction expansion.
  • If you rotate an irrational number of revolutions several times, you'll never end up exactly where you started.

That's about it.