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Sacred Mathematics – Fukagawa Hidetoshi & Tony Rothman ***

This is a heavy, lushly produced looking book with a glossy golden cover and glossy pages throughout. When the introduction said it could be read as an art book ‘that delights simply by the perusal of it’ I expected it to be a collection of beautiful colour illustrations, but rather light on the ‘Japanese temple geometry’ promised in the subtitle. In fact it’s the other way round. There are a few colour plates in the middle, but all the rest of those glossy pages are used to display black and white that would have worked equally well on much cheaper ordinary paper.
Overall it’s a strange book. The idea is to display the (mostly) geometrical problems, hung up by ordinary people on boards called sangaku in temples across Japan between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. It’s a wonderful and bizarre concept. After a bit of interesting history, page after page of the book – the vast bulk of it – is filled with these problems for the reader to solve (there are solutions later on).
The result is something like the result of breeding a coffee table art book with a geometry text book – it doesn’t work very satisfactorily as either. Many of the geometry problems aren’t particularly mathematically significant, and it’s hard not to wonder why one should bother after a while, unless the reader happens to be the sort of person who likes solving geometric problems just for the fun of it. You can see why the idea behind this book originated from the same culture as sudoku. Just like that irritating number game, it’s a very clever concept that is ultimately entirely pointless.

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Review by Jo Reed

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