Skip to main content

Professor Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities - Ian Stewart ****

This is the second review of a trilogy, read in entirely the wrong order (book 3, then 1 here, and 2 to follow), so should you be feeling confused, this book is a predecessor to Professor Stewart's Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries. The format is very similar - a collection of factoids, logical puzzles, mathematical expositions and more to entertain any recreational maths enthusiast. I think it works significantly better in this first book of the series because, to be honest, by volume 3 there is probably a bit of barrel scraping going on. Here the topics are fresh and fun.

There is arguably something for everyone here, which inversely means that there are probably some bits, depending on your mathematical knowledge and interests, that you will either find too trivial or too heavy going. But the format makes it easy to skip through to the next. I personally most enjoy the logic problems (though a small black mark for featuring a near-identical "moving the cups" problem to one in the third book) and, much to my surprise, the geometry, which I suppose took me back to a more innocent time. There were inevitably some entries where there was a strong feeling of 'so what?', leaving the reader suspecting that mathematicians need to get a life. And at least one where I think the answer is wrong, if you apply the same logic as applied in an earlier tricksy question. (It's the one about pigs and umbrellas, if you must know.) 

Funnily, what works least well are the bits that are most like a conventional popular maths book, that describe famous mathematical problems and their context, such as the four colour problem and Fermat's last theorem. The entries for these are rather longer than the rest, but obviously much shorter than, say, Simon Singh's brilliant book on Fermat. That means that you get concentrated fact, but none of the interesting detail that makes a popular science or maths book appealing. For me these sections just don't work and I largely skipped them. 

But - and that's the joy of the format - it really doesn't matter. Because in a few pages there will be something else, and something else, and something else again to entertain and tickle the brain cells. It's notable that I got not just one (about a strange set of dice) but two blog posts (the other being about an oddity in my review copy) out of this book - because it made me think, reminded me of some old favourite problems and puzzles, introduced plenty of new ones and entertained. What more can you ask from maths.


Paperback 

Kindle 
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…