Skip to main content

Strange Curves, Counting Rabbits and other Mathematical Explorations – Keith Ball ***

There is an immediate concern on glancing at the back of this book. It’s labelled ‘Popular Mathematics’, but the blurb blithely comments ‘Accessible to anyone familiar with basic calculus.’ Whoa, recreational maths this ain’t. You’ve immediately knocked out 90% of the market. But really it’s worse than that. I’d say the level of maths you need to understand the book is a little higher than that suggested – perhaps a first year maths or science undergraduate. But the level of maths you need to enjoy the book is considerably higher. This is a book for maths geeks, people who get a thrill out of working mathematical proofs themselves, as ably demonstrated by all the problems set for the reader, which are often of the form ‘prove the formula…’
It’s a shame that this isn’t for the general reader because there are some great topics. Apart from the familiar old thing about how many people you need in a room to have a 50:50 chance of two having the same birthday (I know this sounds populist enough, but it’s the start of chapter that rapidly veers off into the technical) we get aspects of information theory, methods of approximation, sampling theory, even geometry (with an integral calculus feel). But unless you are the sort of person who can sit down and enjoy a maths text book, this isn’t for you.
In essence this is what we are dealing with – a text book, but rather than dealing with a specific topic, dealing with various interesting bits of maths. For that reason it’s impossible to give it more than three stars here. A simple flick through – most of the pages are at least half equations – will confirm that it really won’t work for the majority of the readers. But if you salivate at the thought of working those calculations, then run don’t walk to the bookshop –for once they’ve produced a book just for you.

Review by Peter Spitz


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…