Skip to main content

A Wealth of Numbers – Benjamin Wardhaugh ***

I’m probably the last person who should be reviewing this book because quite a bit of  it is about mathematical puzzles, and I’m hopeless with these. I enjoy them as long as I can get the answer off the top of my head within 30 seconds – then I feel smug. But otherwise  I get bored, and I’m certainly not going to do anything that involves writing out a series of equations.
That’s perhaps a bit picky, though. Because the book has a much wider brief than mathematical puzzles and diversions – it provides us with many excerpts from maths books aimed at the general reader over the last five hundred years. As such it’s a box of curiosities. Reading it is a bit like going around one of those really old fashioned, fusty local museums. A lot of the stuff you see you think ‘Why are they bothering to display this?’ But then you will come across a little gem like a mummified mermaid and it is all, briefly, worthwhile.
So it is, for example, quaintly interesting to see extracts from Robert Recorde’s famous sixteenth century mathematical textbooks, giving us instructions in how to add two numbers together, or to dally with the mathematical problems set in The Girls’ Own Book(even if I had to read the answer to one several times to understand what it was getting at). But there was a lot that wasn’t particularly thrilling.
I may be biassed but I think I got more from some of the science writing that somehow  creeps in (who couldn’t enjoy A Mother Explains Comets from 1823 or the incomparable Richard Feynman on The Character of Physical Law) but I can see for the enthusiast for the history of popular maths writing this is a must-have book. I just suspect that this is a relatively limited market. For the rest of us, it would liven up a wet weekend in Margate, but would be trumped by most other entertainment.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…