Skip to main content

Number Freak – Derrick Niederman ***

Things didn’t start well with me with this self-confessed ‘mathematical compendium from 1 to 200′. On the front it has a quote from Carol Vorderman. ‘This book is a complete joy. It made me smile. A lot.’ Is it really a recommendation that a book made Carol Vorderman smile? This started me off in a nervous disposition.
When it comes down to it, this is one of those books that takes a theme and batters it to death. ‘I’ll list every number between 1 and 200 and write something interesting about it,’ thought the author. (Except he couldn’t find anything at all to say about 183.) Oh, good – a bit like counting sheep. Inevitably this format leads to a forced style, but to be fair, Derrick Niederman does manage to dig up some quite interesting material (occasionally it feels like wading through one of the worse episodes of QI) about the numbers in question. At these points it can be entertaining. But all too often I found myself thinking ‘not another…[insert mathematical structure of your choice].’ It all gets a bit samey.
This is not helped by a rather limited ability on the part of the author to explain mathematical matters lucidly. Several times I found myself having to read a paragraph two or three times to try to understand what Niederman was trying to get across. Even straightforward English sometimes presents a challenge. Take this comment about the Olympic rings. ‘Although the colours of the rings – blue, black, yellow, green, and red – do not correspond to [the five regions of the world] in a one-to-one sense, each of these five colours is represented in every national flag in the world.’ Really? Where is the yellow and black in the Union Flag or the Star Spangled Banner? It just doesn’t make sense. What he probably meant is that every national flag contains at least one of these colours, but it’s not what he said, and someone writing about maths should understand the need for precision.
I’d also have been a lot happier if the book gave some explanations for some of the apparently arbitrary labels of mathematics. For instance, we are told 6 is the first perfect number (it’s the sum of the numbers that divide into it, 1, 2 and 3). I knew that. But what I didn’t know, and would like to know, is so what? What does this signify? What does it do or provide us with as a piece of information? How can we use it? It’s just left dangling.
All in all, highly curate’s-egg-like as a reading experience. It’s very rare I don’t get all the way through a book, but I confess I couldn’t be bothered to finish this one.
Hardback:  
Review by Peter Spitz

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…