Skip to main content

Mind Bending Puzzles & Fascinating Facts – Paul Williams ***

There is nothing like a bunch of puzzles and factoids to help the reader recover from some heavy duty popular science reading. Although not all the puzzles and quite interesting facts in this book fall within the remit of science or maths, it has enough to qualify here.
Paul Williams has organized his book into five sections – easy, moderate, tricky, difficult and fiendish. This doesn’t necessarily reflect how puzzling a topic is, but often refers to the amount of mathematical effort involved – so most of the ‘fiendish’ topics are straight mathematical proofs.
Each item in the book is standalone, making this a good dip-in book (dare I say it, handy to install in the toilet). It is best described as eclectic. There are quite a lot of mathematical conundrums, but there are also logic problems, little bits of science and a collection of items that could best be described as ‘quite interesting’ from palindromes to ways of doing quick calculations in the head.
Some of the entries are entertainingly surprising. I liked, for example, a little piece on words that can’t be spelled or can’t be pronounced, where basically the verb applied to two different activities and sounds the same but is pronounced differently or vice versa. The problem arises when trying to use a single verb to cover both activities. This was rather neat. Elsewhere things were less effective. This was either because there wasn’t enough material, or what there was seemed feeble. We have a section that tells us, for example about what would happen if you fell down a hole through the centre of the Earth, but it doesn’t mention the really interesting point that the time is constant whether you go through the centre of the Earth or miss it and take a shorter route.
To give an example of a couple of feeble entries, we are told how everyone got it wrong by celebrating the millennium in the year 2000 – come on, this is hardly news. Worst of all is the entry that starts: ‘Poetry is fun. Some people like reading poetry but many people also write poetry.’ This seems like the kind of statement a 9-year-old would write. We are then subjected to four poems that Williams likes. What has this to do with either mind bending puzzles or fascinating facts? It’s self-indulgence, and suggests this book is in need of a good editor.
Probably the biggest fault with the book is bringing it out as hardback. This isn’t the kind of thing to be cherished, it’s a cheap and cheerful kind of subject and it would have been better to have made it a cheap and cheerful paperback rather than a hardback retailing at £12.99 (at the time of reviewing it is a bit cheaper on Amazon) – the only thing to be said for this is it makes it a good gift book.
Overall then, a real curates egg of factoids, puzzles and straightforward mathematical proofs (the last of which are hardly mind bending or fascinating). At its best, very entertaining, but all too often it’s not so much ‘quite interesting’ as ‘faintly interesting.’
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…