Skip to main content

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.
Review by Jo Reed


Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…