Skip to main content

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 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.
Paperback:  
Also in hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…