Skip to main content

The Great Mathematical Problems – Ian Stewart *****

As a science writer, whose only foray into maths has been to cover infinity – by far the sexiest and most intriguing mathematical topic – I am in awe of those who successfully popularize maths.

By comparison, science is easy. We all know from school that science can be dull, but if you go about it the right way, it is naturally fascinating, because it’s about how the universe we live in works. Admittedly maths has plenty of applications, but an awful lot of mathematics is about a universe we don’t live in. It can seem that many mathematicians spend their time doing the equivalent of arguing about the dietary habits of unicorns. Not really a proper job for a grown human being.
Probably the best of the current crop of popular maths writers is Ian Stewart. Certainly the most prolific – I don’t know how he finds the time for his day job. Stewart is decidedly variable in his books. Some of them are pure unicorn territory. I find myself turning page after page thinking ‘So what? I don’t care!’ But every now and then he gets it just right – and this is such an example.
Okay, there are occasional unicorn moments, where I had to skip through a page or two to avoid dropping off (when, for example, he gets altogether too excited about the prospect of constructing a regular 17 sided polygon using only a ruler and a pair of compasses), but they are rare indeed. Stewart takes on some of the greatest problems to face mathematicians through history – even the names are evocative, like Goldbach’s Conjecture and, of course, the Riemann Hypothesis. They sound like a Sherlock Holmes story. And Stewart makes them interesting. Which is truly wonderful.
In part the readability is because of a good smattering of stuff about the people – historical context is never more important than in popular maths – but he also pitches the mathematics itself at just the right level to keep our interest without going into mind-numbing detail, or being too summary. I am very wary of describing any book as a tour-de-force, but this one certainly comes close.
Even though Stewart does not keep things enthralling throughout – the dullest chapter is the one on Fermat’s Last Theorem, which I suspect is because Stewart focuses more on the maths here and less on the people, so excellently covered by Simon Singh – there is plenty in this book to keep the imagination alive. If you hate maths this is not going to make you a convert. But if, like me, you have a grudging admiration for maths but find a lot of it impenetrable or pointless, you should have a great time in Ian Stewart’s capable hands.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…