Wednesday, 10 February 2010

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.
Review by Peter Spitz

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