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1089 and All That – David Acheson *****

I really don’t know what’s happened to OUP – there was a time when this academic publisher had great ideas for science books, but the books themselves were practically unreadable. Now they’ve had a string of top notch titles – to which this is both a recent and an early addition, as the first edition of this book slipped under the radar back in 2002, but now it’s out in paperback and ready to wow a wider audience.
For non-UK (and younger) readers, the title is a play on 1066 and All That, a humorous book on history that was very popular in the 1950s. Here, though, the topic is mathematics, and rather than mock the subject, as 1066 does, the approach here is to demonstrate the delight of maths done right. The author could just have easily gone for a 1970s appeal and called this The Joy of Maths – because a joy it truly is.
There is a slightly dated feel about the book, both in its presentation and style that, for me at least, is not a bad thing, but rather 100% nostalgia. It starts with a reference to the I-Spy books, a big part of my childhood. And then there are the illustrations. When I was young my father subscribed to a magazine called the Model Engineer. Usually full of serious articles about doing things with lathes to produce working scale models of steam engines, it was dull as ditchwater for me and I avoided it like the plague, except the Christmas edition. Here there was usually a story of the adventures of a lunatic model engineer, building the kind of contraptions that would later feature on Wallace and Grommit. The illustrations were surreal photographs that were somehow old fashioned and downright weird at the same time – and that’s exactly the same feel the illustrations here have. On one page we’ll have a cartoon, on another a photograph of a model railway, on one of the buildings of which is a poster announcing ‘Brighten your day the Geometry way!’
However, this period feel doesn’t extend to a dull approach to the topic – instead, David Acheson really does make maths – and it’s by no means all fun, recreational maths, but often the real thing – both approachable and entertaining. There are snippets of geometry and algebra, infinite series and chaos theory, trigonometry and the Indian rope trick (no, really, there is applied maths here, in a very strange way). There’s no attempt to cover any of these topics in depth – we just get a quick feel for them, plus one or two illustrations of particularly interesting, mindbending, useful, or just strange applications. I was least enthusiastic about the trigonometry, but most of it just shot past in an entertaining stream.
Popular maths is not easy to do, but David Acheson has really achieved it with this pocket-sized gem of a book. I read it in one sitting, and I think you will too.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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