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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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