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:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you  
Review by Peter Spitz

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor - Colin Tucker ****

How To Drive A Nuclear Reactor does exactly what it says on the tin. The book is a general overview of nuclear reactors. From the basic principles that make them work through to what buttons to press in what order (and of course how and why they can go wrong).Nuclear power could be a good step on the path to a greener energy future, but there is a lot of understandable fear. This book can give some idea of what an incredible feat of both science and engineering one of these machines is and, hopefully, make anyone reading it feel far more comfortable about them.The book presents information about everything, almost down to the literal nuts and bolts, giving you a near complete understanding of how a nuclear works. From putting in the fuel to getting out the power and down from the control panel to the construction material. Everything you could ever want to know is here. By the end you'll likely feel ready to walk into a control room and get started (do not try doing this, nuclear …

Meteorite - Tim Gregory ****

There have been many books on astronomy, ranging from exploring individual aspects of the solar system, such as the Sun or Mars, through to studies of the most distant depths of the universe, but there has been relatively little on the only astronomical objects that we're able to touch (other than the Earth itself) - meteorites.

In Meteorite, Tim Gregory fills in many details of the nature of these rocks from outer space, from how they formed in the first place to the range of types and origins that are possible. Most come from the debris of the forming solar system left in the asteroid belt, but some were smashed off the Moon or Mars by an incoming impactor.

Although the main focus is the meteorites themselves (if there's any doubt, we are talking about the solid remains that fall to Earth when a meteor - a shooting star - in part survives the journey through the atmosphere), Gregory also fills us in on the contribution that meteorites have made to the Earth, whether it be brin…

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande ****

I heard recently that the local geriatric ward puts a photograph of the patient in his or her prime by each bed. The aim is to help staff to treat their patients as individuals, but it makes me uneasy. Do these people only matter because of what they were, not what they are? Because once they stood proud and handsome in their uniform, or looked lovely on their wedding day?

Professor Atul Gawande has the problem surgically excised and laid out for inspection in one of his unflinching but compassionate case studies:

‘What bothered Shelley was how little curiosity the staff members seemed to have about what Lou cared about in his life and what he had been forced to forfeit... They might have called the service they provided assisted living, but no-one seemed to think it was their job to actually assist him with living – to figure out how to sustain the connection and joys that most mattered to him.’

Gawande is an eminent surgeon. As a young resident he displayed little overt emotion when hi…