Skip to main content

Numbers: a very short introduction – Peter M. Higgins ***

Part of the massive ‘a very short introduction’ range of pocket books, this book sets you straight immediately if you thought it was going to be about mathematics – no, it’s about number, which is quite a different thing. This is both true and not true, which really sets the pattern for the whole little book. Number is a quite distinct concept from maths, yet in discussing number, Peter Higgins inevitably brings in quite a lot of mathematics.
The mixed feel continues with the presentation. The writing style is light and accessible for what can be quite an indigestible topic, but bits of the book are better than other in this respect. I wanted to keep reading, but I found myself feeling a strong urge to skip bits that seemed to be getting bogged down.
After an introduction to what numbers are we’re plunged into prime numbers in some detail. From here we go on to the various labels mathematicians have for numbers, from perfect to deficient – this is faintly interesting, but it does generate an urge to ask ‘Yes, but why does it matter?’ We go on to the likes of cryptography and the use of large primes to perform encryption/decryption, the various fractions, infinity and more. (Yes, you can have more than infinity, and you know what I mean anyway).
There seemed a couple of strange omissions. I think we could have done with significantly more on the philosophy of number – just what numbers are, why human beings use them, whether they have a real existence outside of mathematics etc. I was also surprised by the near-absence of set theory – it comes into the infinity chapter, but there is none of the use of set theory to establish the basics of number and operations, which seemed odd. I’d have expected it up front.
In the end it’s a book that falls between two stools. It isn’t consistently readable enough to be good popular science, but it isn’t detailed enough to be a textbook. I’m not really sure what it’s for. But it’s certainly not a bad addition to the series – and ‘number’ certainly deserves its place there.
Paperback:  
Review by Jo Reed

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…

Crashing Heaven (SF) - Al Robertson ****

There's an engaging mix of powerful thriller and science fiction in this impressive novel. After the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable, human life is limited to vast space station. Our central character, Jack, has a symbiotic artificial intelligence, Hugo Fist, designed to destroy other AIs in a mysterious collective that is said to have committed an atrocity - but with a kick in the tail that because of an unbreakable contract, Fist will take over Jack's body in a few weeks' time.

Al Robertson packs remarkable technology concepts into the cyber side of this story, from AI corporations that act as a pantheon of gods to the 'puppet' that is Fist (he usually come across as a virtual cross between Mr Punch and an evil ventriloquist's dummy). Robertson does all the cyber stuff so well that it's easy to miss that this is, in effect, a myth in electronic clothing - you could substitute the myths of 'real' Greek gods and magic for what happens here. Alt…

The Science of Food - Marty Jopson ****

This is a tasty little volume, packed with kitchen-based science. I must admit, when I saw that the author was the One Show's science expert and Marty Jopson's author photo has that 'Hey, I'm a mad scientist, kids!' look, my heart fell - I was sure the book would be the written equivalent of a 'Wow, look, aren't I clever, I can make this go bang!' science show - but, in fact, it's packed full of (appropriately) meaty scientific content.

I was really pleased that Jopson didn't stick purely to the chemistry of cooking, but launched with the working of some familiar kitchen gadgets - there was genuinely fascinating reading to be had about apparently humdrum equipment in the form of the physics and materials science of a knife and chopping board. And Jopson took us into industrial kitchens too, to reveal, for example, the remarkable process required to make puffed wheat.

Inevitably, the chemistry of cooking - how, for example, proteins denature and em…