Skip to main content

Professor Stewart's Incredible Numbers - Ian Stewart ***

Ian Stewart is the most prolific writer in the field of popular maths, sometimes producing absolute crackers of a book like The Great Mathematical Problems and sometimes turning out ones that don't quite hit the mark. Intriguingly, this seems to manage to be both, in the same way as we discover that zero manages to be the same as minus zero.

The good news is that there's all kind of weird and wonderful mathematical information here. The book is divided into many sections, starting with the small integers, and making it all the way to infinity, via a plethora of different values and climaxing, appropriately enough, with 42. 

The bad news is that this format means that the book is mostly a collection of facts with limited context and narrative, the part of a popular maths/science book that makes for a truly engrossing read. There are also heavy duty examples of the classic writer's error of 'If it's interesting to me, it must be to you.' So, at one point we read 'On Christmas day 1640 the brilliant mathematician Pierre de Fermat wrote to the monk Marin Mersenne, and asked an intriguing question. Which numbers can be written as a sum of two perfect squares.'

In fact there are two problems with this particular extract. One is spurious context. Unless there was some relevance to it being Christmas Day, then telling us that makes it sound like we're getting context without actually doing so. But worse is the 'intriguing question' bit - because unless you are a mathematician, there is nothing intriguing about that question. 

I think a good general test of whether this book will work for you or not is how you react to magic squares - those grids of numbers that typically add up to the same value along each row, column and diagonal. It's a good example of how the book is organised, by the way, that these turn up in the section for number 9, because the smallest magic square is 3x3. If your reaction to magic squares is a mild interest that the earliest known magic square is called the Lo Shu (no date given), but then you get bored finding out about the properties of all sorts of different magic squares you will find parts of the book hard going. On the other hand, if after four pages on magic squares you think 'I wish there was more on magic squares,' rush out and buy a copy immediately. 

If I am honest I am more in the first camp - but it didn't stop me reading the whole book because there are a good few genuinely interesting bits. The ones that work for me are the historically meaty ones, like the origin of zero, negative numbers and complex numbers - my suspicion is that every reader will find some parts to enjoy. So you pays your money (in real numbers) and you makes your choice. 

Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…