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December 2014

  Kitchen Timers and Calculus

A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)
        by Barbara Oakley

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Barbara Oakley is something of a wonder — almost as impressive, although in a very different way, as her namesake Annie, the sharpshooter.

From high school Ms. Oakley went into the U.S. Army, who turned her into a fluent Russian-speaker — her first degree was in Slavic languages. Leaving the Army with the rank of captain, and seeing few civilian job opportunities in translating or interpreting, she retrained herself in math and science, subjects she had failed in high school. She tells us that "I … only started studying trigonometry — remedial trigonometry — when I was twenty-six years old." The retraining was so successful Oakley is now associate professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan. Along the way she somehow found time for curious and unusual adventures. She and her spouse first met in Antarctica, for example; not a thing many couples can claim.

Oakley is now making a name for herself as a writer of popular books about the mind sciences, though the word "popular" needs some qualifying. The 2011 book Pathological Altruism, which she co-edited and to which she contributed, was interesting and original, but not an easy read, and probably not a favorite at airport bookstores. If I were to place writers of popular mind science books on an airport-worthy spectrum with Malcolm Gladwell at one end and Steven Pinker at the other, Barbara Oakley would be a tad to the Pinker side of center. She does not have Pinker's deep background in experimental psychology, nor — to be fair to Pinker — his wit, nor his skill in organizing his material. On the other hand, as a professor of engineering, she surely, unlike Gladwell, knows how to spell "eigenvalue."

Adventurous and intellectually fearless, Barbara Oakley bears watching. In A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) she offers a short course in learning, with particular reference to math and science learning. Drawing on her own experience — which is obviously highly relevant — and on insights from the mind sciences, she teaches her readers the best techniques for acquiring and retaining knowledge, and the worst pitfalls to avoid …

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[Complete review in the December 2014 issue of Academic Questions]