Skip to main content

30 Second Maths – Richard Brown (Ed.) ***

I sometimes feel like I’m becoming a Victor Meldrew of science publishing. It happens when I can’t understand why a book exists. This is just such a book. It’s a lovely book. It feels nice to hold, it looks great, the design is superb. But I don’t understand what it’s for.
30 Second Maths (nice to see that ‘s’) is divided into chunks covering things like ‘Numbers and Counting’ and ‘Algebra and Abstraction’. Each chunk starts with a glossary and then is mainly two page spreads, the left text, the right a stylish illustration. The text is divided up into a number of bitettes, including the main ’30 seconds maths’ section, and sidebars including a ‘3 second sum’ and a ‘3 minute addition’. My biggest bugbear is the ‘3 second biography’ section which is just a list of names and dates.
This whole layout is design over readability. The headings don’t make any sense –  the ‘3 minute addition’ may be adding a little depth but it is a lot shorter than the ’30 second maths’ section. The main chunk of text is the sort of thing that would work well as a poster to read on the underground, but hardly seems worth the effort in a book. These are fragments in search of reconstruction – it’s like looking at a few shattered remains of a narrative.
The only time the book comes alive is when we get to a profile. Each of the chunks contains a profile of a mathematician – the likes of Pascal and al-Khwarizmi – and suddenly the whole thing comes alive. It’s two pages of flowing text, enough to be readable and interesting. These articles show what the rest of the book could have been like if it wasn’t dominated by the design.
Frustrating, then. A handsome book, but not a great popular science read.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…