Skip to main content

The Magic of Maths - Arthur Benjamin ***

There are broadly three types of popular maths. There are books like A Brief History of Infinity which introduce mathematical concepts and history without actually doing any maths - and these can be fascinating. There are books of recreational maths, like Martin Gardner's classic Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions, or Ian Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities, which explore the weird and wonderful of maths, with a need for a bit of practical working out, but almost always provide plenty of fun along the way. And there are book like the Magic of Maths. (Could I say, by the way, how grateful I am that the UK edition has that 's' on 'maths'.) Almost always written by mathematicians, such books set out to prove to the masses who think that actually getting your hands dirty and doing mathematics is too hard or too boring that it's really easy and enjoyable too.
To give him his due, Arthur Benjamin makes a good stab at this - one of the best I've seen. He tells us we're going to learn clever little tricks that will allow us to do amazing things with mental arithmetic - for instance multiplying surprisingly big numbers in our heads. And he delivers. It really works, and we can amaze ourselves, though probably not our friends, because if other readers are anything like me they will have forgotten most of the techniques by the time they finish the next chapter.
Benjamin also takes on the likes of algebra, Fibonacci numbers, geometry, trigonometry, imaginary numbers, calculus and more. And going on the pages of testimonials from maths professors in the front, this is the kind of thing maths-heavy people love. And that's fine. But for most of us I'd say 80 per cent of the book is not going to be appreciated. Early on, Benjamin tells us we shouldn't mind skipping pages or even chapters. But when you find yourself skipping most of the content, it begins to feel as if it wasn't a great thing to read in the first place.
In one of those fruitless exercises in saying the whole world is your audience, Benjamin comments that the book is for anyone who will one day take a maths course, is taking a maths course or is finished taking maths courses. I'd say the audience is a lot tighter. It's for people who one day will take a maths degree, or took one years ago and wants to reminisce. It's just too number heavy and narrative light to work for me. And I have taken a maths course. But I certainly don't want take another - and this has reminded me why.
I have to emphasise that the book is by no means all bad. Benjamin does introduce some fun, and weird and wonderful stuff, like the apparent demonstration that infinity is equal to -1/12 (though I've seen better explanations of why this demonstration falls apart). But far too often what Benjamin thinks is fun is just 'So what?' to us lesser mortals.


Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Jim Baggott - Four Way Interview

Jim Baggott is a freelance science writer. He trained as a scientist, completing a doctorate in physical chemistry at Oxford in the early 80s, before embarking on post-doctoral research studies at Oxford and at Stanford University in California. He gave up a tenured lectureship at the University of Reading after five years in order to gain experience in the commercial world. He worked for Shell International Petroleum for 11 years before leaving to establish his own business consultancy and training practice. He writes about science, science history and philosophy in what spare time he can find. His books include Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb (2009), Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ (2012), Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields (2017), and, most recently, Quantum Space: Loop Quantum Gravity and the Search for the Structure of Space, Time, and the Universe (2018). For more info see: www…

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…