Skip to main content

The Little Book of Mathematical Principles – Robert Solomon **

This is a pocket book in the same series as the entertaining Little Book of Unscientific propositions etc – but there is a fundamental difference between the two. The subject matter in that other title was fun and entertaining, making the little articles on different subjects an enjoyable read, but here it’s more a case of plodding through mathematical history picking out the main features. Frankly it is dull, not aided by the relentless chronological order, which puts all the boring basics at the beginning.
Even when the book moves out of straightforward maths into historical context there are some issues because the history of maths parts don’t always seem particularly well researched. So, for example, the book says that the Pythagorean who let slip that the diagonal of square to be irrational is unknown, but that he was taken out and drowned. The usual version is that we have a name for the man (Hipparsus) but that there is only a legend that he was drowned. Similarly, Newton is identified here as the ‘infidel’ in Bishop Berkley’s discourse on the method of fluxions/calculus – where in fact it was Edmund Halley.
There also seems to be paucity of maths to cover, because a fair number of the topics are straightforward science, like the move from an earth-centred to a sun-centred universe and the mechanics of falling bodies. There’s even a section on special relativity, which is rather poorly handled as the text suggests the effects of relativity are subjective, as if (for instance) time dilation just seems to happen. This is misleading as it is a real, measurable effect.
Overall, then, this is a book that isn’t particularly one you can sit and read through for enjoyment, but neither is it detailed enough to be used as a reference book. I’m really not sure what it’s for. We need more good popular maths books, but sadly this doesn’t make a contribution.

Paperback:  
Review by Peter Spitz

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Hidden Half - Michael Blastland *****

Michael Blastland is co-author of one of my favourite titles on the use and misuse of numbers, The Tiger that Isn't - so I was excited to see this book and wasn't disappointed.

Blastland opens with the story of a parthenogenic crustacean that seems to demonstrate that, despite having near-identical nature and nurture, a collection of the animals vary hugely in size, length of life and practically every other measure. This is used to introduce us to the idea that our science deals effectively with the easy bit, the 'half' that is accessible, but that in many circumstances there is a hidden half that comprises a whole range of very small factors which collectively can have a huge impact, but which are pretty much impossible to predict or account for. (I put 'half' in inverted commas as it might be fairer to say 'part' - there's no suggestion that this is exactly 50:50.)

We go on to discover this hidden half turning up in all kinds of applications of …

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Bloom - Ruth Kassinger ***

There is much fascinating material in this chunky book by Ruth Kassinger. It may be my total ignorance of biology and everyone else knows these things, but I learnt so much - for example that seaweed is algae and not a plant, about algae's role in the development of land plants, about the algae in lichen and its contribution to coral reefs.

The book is divided into four broad sections: on the origins and development of algae, on algae (and particularly seaweed) as food, on making use of algae, for example, for biofuel, and on algae and climate change, particularly the bleaching of coral and algal blooms. This is all done in a very approachable writing style, mixing descriptive material that is never over-technical with narrative often featuring visits to different locations and to talk to a range of experts from those who study to algae to those who cook them.

There are two problems though. Firstly, the book is too long at 380 pages. Each section could do with a trim, but this wa…