Skip to main content

Professor Stewart's Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries ***

There are broadly two audiences for popular maths books - general readers and maths geeks, and a title can appeal to one, or the other, or a bit of both. I struggle with the pure geek books (I'll give you an example of the sort of thing you have to enjoy for me to define you as a maths geek in a moment), but Ian Stewart is capable of writing a book that really does appeal solidly to general reader, as evidenced by his Great Mathematical Problems.

I haven't read (yet) his two previous books in this trilogy, Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities and Hoard of Mathematical Treasures, but my suspicion is that Stewart got through most of the really appealing stuff in those, as at least two thirds of this book fell into the 'geeks only' category. This was a real shame, as the other bits were excellent. I was, admittedly, a bit wary on reading the bumf to discover that Stewart was indulging in some Sherlock Holmes pastiche to frame some of the problems. If there's one thing scientists and mathematicians fall for when they try to do funny, it's whimsy - and it can be horribly painful. All the signs were that this would be the case. Stewart's pair, Soames and Watsup have a landlady called Mrs Soapsuds (why?) - the groans were already pilling up. Yet, surprisingly, what he has produced are very palatable pastiches, full of references to the real thing, yet working surprisingly effectively on their own. Nice one.

The fact remains, though, that there are far too many 'mathematical mysteries' that evoke the response 'So what?' For example: 
The cubes of the three consecutive numbers 1, 2, 3 are 1, 8, 27, which add up to 36, a perfect square. What are the next three consecutive cubes whose sum is a square?
Sorry, I neither know nor care - and though I've given a very short example, some of the longer entries are this kind of mathematical trivia that will only turn on the ├╝ber-mathers.

So near, but so far. The good bits are five star greats. I loved, for instance, the Soames and Watsup puzzle requiring you to change the pattern of 8 glasses with only two moves. (Partly, admittedly, because I saw the answer straight away.) In fact the best bits do tend to be logical or lateral thinking problems. I will have to check out the two earlier books to see if the ratio of interest is similar, but for me, in this particular title, there are just too many items that don't raise more than a passing eyebrow.


Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Crowd and the Cosmos - Chris Lintott ****

We tend to have a very old fashioned idea of what astronomers do - peering through telescopes on dark nights. In reality, not only do many of them not use optical telescopes, but almost all observations are now performed electronically. Chris Lintott does a great job of bringing alive the realities of modern astronomy, and the way that the flood of data that is produced by all these electronic devices is being in part addressed by 'citizen scientists' - volunteer individuals who check image after image for interesting features.

Inevitably, all this cataloguing and categorising brings to mind Ernest Rutherford's infamous quotation along the lines of 'all science is either physics or stamp collecting.' This occurred to me even before Chris Lintott brought it up. Lintott defends the process against the Rutherford attack by pointing out that it can be a useful starting point for real, new research. To be fair to Rutherford, I think this misses the great man's poin…

The Science of Being Human - Marty Jopson *****

It might seem at first sight that a book titled 'The Science of Being Human' is about biology (or anthropology) - and certainly there's an element of that in Marty Jopson's entertaining collection of pretty-well freestanding articles on human science - but in reality a better clue comes from the subtitle 'why we behave, think and feel the way we do.'

What Jopson does is to pick out different aspects of the human experience - often quite small and very specific things - and take us through the science behind it. I often found that it was something I really wasn't expecting that really caught my fancy. The test with this kind of book is often what inspires the reader to tell someone else about it - the first thing I found myself telling the world was about why old 3D films used to give you a headache, but modern ones tend not to. (It's about the way that in the real world, your eyes swivel towards each other as things get closer to you.)

It's irresisti…

Jet Stream - Tim Woolings ****

The importance of the jet stream - a high speed flow of air that usually carries the warm air that makes the UK warmer than it should be for its position on the Earth - is rarely fully appreciated. Recently, though, we have had a number of extreme weather events that were put down to shifts in the jet stream, emphasising its significant impact on everyday life.

Tim Woolings starts his approachable exploration of the jet stream on a beach in Barbados (all in the interest of science, of course) and takes the reader through a surprising amount of information in a relatively slim 200 pages plus notes. For the first few pages we're introduced to some of the basics of weather forecasting at this Barbados location, but then we segue from surf and sun to the winds, and up to around 10 kilometres, where aircraft tend to cruise: here we meet the jet stream, which is beginning its journey in this region.

The reader is rewarded with plenty of juicy little facts, such as the revelation that the …